Momentary Relief: The Many Appetites of Jay Batlle.
Interview May 18, 2011/21 Club/New York with David Coggins
The artist toils in private and is judged in public—the intensely personal is interpreted in a roomful of strangers. It’s a defining divide. And it’s not unlike the gulf between a restaurant’s kitchen and its dining room. The chef prepares a meal in the heat before it’s presented on a pristine white plate in the cool of the corner booth. The parallel is noteworthy when considering the work of Jay Batlle, an artist familiar with the pleasures of the studio, the kitchen, and, certainly, the dining room. For years, his work has addressed our appetites, for food, for love, for money. Various projects involved cooking (sausages in Germany), evidence of elaborate meals (working on restaurant stationery), and even incorporating materials from the kitchen itself (using food coloring on drawings).
Batlle considers the inherent theatricality of the fine arts and the formal dining room, and the friction between private execution and public performance. Batlle’s appetite for pleasure is ongoing—and that search gives meaning to a hunger without end.
DC: How have food and art been entwined for you?
JB: I’m interested in how people interact around the table. Having rules and etiquette are important to my practice, and so are goals. When I make art I always see the flip side of the coin—why you would you choose this color, make this piece, or why this scale or material? I am very fickle, always trying different options, like a chef creating a new menu. Art is about finding your own voice. You have to figure out what you’re going to do, and then choose your rules. You have to find your foundation and accept it. As a kid I moved around a lot, and I had many jobs. Most people have a regular job before they become a fulltime artist, and they draw from this experience in their art practice. I worked in restaurants. I remember making a lot of money and thinking “Maybe there’s something here to build my garden and pay the rent.” Waiting tables and cooking are my basic seasonings.
DC: Did you cook when you were young?
JB: I think a lot of creative endeavors derive from boredom. When I was eleven, I was living with my father who at the time was quite well off, but working and away all the time. We lived on a date farm in Phoenix, Arizona, and we had this huge house, on an acre of land in the middle of the city. There was a giant kitchen that no one ever used, so that’s where I got into baking cakes. I was much more scientific then. I was making these terrible things, that no one ate, just shapes of failure. It was almost like sculpture, but really it was just my pre-teen boredom. I’d throw the failed cakes away and start again.
One weekend my father was going to leave town, so he asked what I wanted to do while he was away. I asked to take a class with this famous Chinese chef—Ken Hom who now lives in France. Cooking is a way to fill the time, and so is making art. I was with this master pigment maker the other day, learning about paints, watercolors, and consistencies. I thought how alike they were to recipes. They are ingredients, just like food. It’s similar to going to the best green market you can imagine, but for painting. With someone explaining why you should use this type of mushroom over another.
DC: When you were a kid, how did you even find a recipe—were there cookbooks around?
JB: There were books. I have always been a big reader. But it was this kitchen on the date farm that inspired me. It was so amazing, bay windows, a view of the pool, and it just sat vacant, like a gallery between shows waiting for an artist to bring it to life. I felt sad for it, this forlorn space. An Arizona kitchen was my first atelier. There wasn’t anyone that I cooked for at the time; it was just for me. Today my art is still solitary in nature. In Arizona it was 100 degrees all the time, I didn’t want to go outside, except to skate at night. You know, stay in the air conditioning or grind. I used skating and cooking as my pre-art training.
DC: When did you start eating out in a way that you really realized how much you enjoyed it?
JB: When I had my ‘facts of life’ talk, from my father. He took me to Carefree, a desert community in Arizona. We went to this place called The Satisfied Frog, someone later told me it is actually calledThe Horny Toad. I don’t know if this is some sort of Freudian slip. Being an American middle class boy, I use to think, the more you get the better. The restaurant had a plate called ‘The Beast.’ It was a sampler of every item on the menu, EVERY item. So my father, readying himself for this sex talk, orders ‘The Beast’ platter, and we eat all this meat, rattlesnake, and pigeon. The meal finishes and he doesn’t say anything about the birds or the bees. All I’ve learned about is over eating. Then we’re driving back home in this giant Cadillac. My Father had one of the first cell phones. He’s talking on the phone while driving and I’m thinking, “I still don’t know anything about sex.” Really I knew everything I needed to know at that point, but I was curious as to what my father had to say. Out of the blue this dove, this symbol of peace, crashes into the car’s windshield at full speed. My dad just keeps driving into the desert, talking on the phone. It was really traumatizing. Half an hour later he starts telling things that aren’t appropriate for this interview-pertinent recipes for sex, how to do certain things, what not to do. I just thought “weird.”
DC: Talk about going from zero to sixty.
JB: Right. Suddenly it was over and never mentioned again.
DC: When did eating out become a way to assert your place in the world?
JB: At the end of my college stint, I knew a collector from Boston who really supported my art. He wanted to have a dinner for me. I met him because I used to chauffeur art collectors, as a part-time job in college. He said, “You’re leaving LA, and going to New York, I’d love to throw a goodbye dinner for you. You can invite six people, and I’ll pay, pick whatever restaurant.” So I chose this French/ Vietnamese restaurant, I can’t remember, the name right now. I invited the artist Jim Isermann and some other friends. We had a great meal of quail à l’orange, lamb hearts, and a Clos Vougeot, my first Burgundy, like a virgin. I remember driving away into the LA sunset in a 1985 red Saab convertible.
In Los Angeles, I was addicted to sushi. I became friends with all the Japanese sushi chefs downtown, and my first real credit card debt was from Omakase. After that I started going to the more “upscale” French restaurants in town, La Poubelle, Louis XIV. That was a big deal for me, to go and spend a hundred dollars, especially in college. I don’t know why I thought of it as something meaningful, I guess I’m greedy.
Recently I heard that the reason socialism never took off in America, is that poor people here see themselves simply as inconvenienced millionaires, just like an artist who hasn’t made it yet. I’m interested in the idea that artists are starving until they succeed; I love this cliché that you can’t feed yourself, (Van Gogh ate his paints). Instead of saying artists are poor, or they’re broke, or they owe money, we say they’re starving. So what does that literally translate into? Having a meal! If you’ve “made it,” then you can go to the place in Provence, called La Colombe d’Or, where Picasso used to go and trade a work for eats. You have Kippenberger at the Paris Bar in Berlin, where he had all his paintings hanging and he could eat for free for life. In other words; the artist has made it. He can eat wherever he wants. Success is eating well, but remember what they say about a free lunch.