By Katherine Chan

 On Jay Batlle’s Stationery Series, 2008-2018

One must really be engaged in order to be a painter. Once obsessed by it, one eventually gets to the point where one thinks that humanity could be changed by painting. But when that passion deserts you, there is nothing else left to do. Then it is better to stop altogether. Because basically painting is pure idiocy.

—Gerhard Richter, in conversation with Irmeline Lebeer[1]

From 2008 until 2016, Jay Batlle frequented restaurants primarily in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, places where he lives and to which he travels, and made paintings and drawings on menu stationery he collected from those meals which he has included in his Stationery series. Some of these establishments from which the menus are appropriated are well known, having received Michelin accolades, while others are renowned only in local gourmand spheres. What is important is the way they serve to document the peripatetic eating habits of the artist, as well as the ways in which these works bring to the fore the rise of food as a symbol of nomadic and touristic consumption throughout the world in the last decade.

These eight years of Batlle’s Stationery series also marked a jubilant historical era that may be at its end with the current Presidential regime of Donald Trump. The election of Barack Obama as the first African American President of the United States in 2008 coincided with the most destructive global recession since the Great Depression of 1929, and the swift recovery in some areas of the economy, such as banking, technology, and urban real estate, lead to the “bubbling” of the art market and the meteoric rise of the art object as a form of international currency, traded internationally in a free flow exchange between collectors, gallerists, auction houses, and institutions. Mega museums designed by star architects become “vaults” holding vast collections of paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, films and videos, objects whose values are only augmented by the very fact of their inclusion in these public and private institutions whose names lend themselves to the legitimacy of the values of the artworks for which they become custodians in perpetuity, or at least until they become for sale again.

Jay Batlle makes his art within these larger forces, responding to them in kind. Trained in Conceptual Art at UCLA in California in the 90’s, Batlle translated his ideas about the status of the art work as commodity into sculptures that addressed credit card debt—the ultimate signifier of aspirational living.  The Warholian model of art as business became a motivation for Batlle to create his own corporation, “Jay Batlle Inc.” whose corporate stamp appears on many of his works on paper, giving the drawings the feeling of financial instruments, as transactional objects akin to a publicly traded stock option. By rendering the economic forces upon the lifestyle of the artist as well as upon the art object visible, Batlle engages viewers in a dialogue about cultural production and consumption that reveals the crisis in art making today: how is art still relevant in the face of neo-liberal consumerism that potentially evacuates art of its meaning? And further to this question, how does painting, with its relative ease of portability and display, overcome its status as object of market speculation?

The answer lies in the brilliantly coherent conceptual apparatus upon which the entire Stationery series is based. Batlle connects his oeuvre to what the art historian David Joselit calls a “network,” by which an art object is connected to a system of social relations that elevates it to a status above that of any reified object. Joselit uses the grammatical term transitive, used to describe a verb whose action passes over to an object, to elucidate an operation he observes among painters today who seek to redeem painting of its relegation to commodity:

Transitive painting…invents forms and structures who purpose is to demonstrate that once an object enters a network, it can never be fully stilled, but only subjected to different material states and speeds of circulation ranging from the geologically slow (cold storage) to the infinitely fast.[2]

Rather than making a thing that is fossilized in its status as trophy or financial instrument, Batlle inserts his work into the worlds that we know: the bon vivant, the chef, the artist, and the historian.  Much of how Batlle does this is performative. In 2011, at the Clages Gallery in Cologne, Batlle displayed paintings wrapped in nylon cloth (the same used to wrap hams), and spent the evening of his own opening slicing serrano ham for invitees, leaving the ham to stand as a souvenir of the event for the run of the exhibition—a gourmand readymade. Drawings and an outdoor sculpture consisting of Monopoly board pieces were displayed at Nyehaus in New York in 2012, while Batlle served wine and shucked fresh oysters for several hundred people. Batlle’s insertion of himself into his own exhibitions highlights the transactional nature of all art, whether it is an exchange of money for the ownership of an art work or the preparation of a meal to invited guests.

Since the start of the Stationery series, Batlle has lived the persona of the artist as a “bon vivant on burgundy,” whose life is as enmeshed in the trappings of consumer culture as his paintings, drawings, and sculptures are. The restaurant stationery works are inspired by the late Martin Kippenberger, the German painter/provocateur who traveled for weeks or months at a time and used hotel stationery as readymade material for his art.  The drawings he made on the stationery were often colorfully expressionistic and bombastic, while others revealed his extreme attention to detail and draughtsmanship. Though other artists have swiped pre-printed stationery to use as material for their drawings, Kippenberger’s lifestyle and the pathos that went with his work are of particular interest to Batlle’s romantic conception of the life of the artist: as a troublemaker, prone to the lure of alcohol and beautiful people, persistently plagued by a self-reflection that often led to depression.  Another bon vivant who figures in Batlle’s universe is Ludwig Bemelmans, well-known in America for his Madeleine books and his murals at the Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue, but who also, less famously, worked in kitchen of the Ritz Carlton in New York for 15 years. Life in the hotel gave him an education in class distinctions, and he became a keen observer of human foibles. Bemelman’s illustrations are full of old world charm and a kind of playfulness that reveals his pure pleasure in living life. Like Bemelmans, Batlle also had a brief career working in a restaurant, as a maître d’ in the now closed Provence, where he brushed elbows with the New York art world glitterati in and around Soho in the late 1990’s.  Batlle’s appropriation of the styles and lives of artists such as Kippenberger and Bemelmans highlights the deep connection Batlle has with history, and his self-consciousness over questions of fame and success.

Batlle’s paintings on enlarged restaurant stationery reference the 19th century affiche, the large scale advertisements ubiquitous in European capitals after the invention of color lithography coincided with the advent of the capitalism, elevated to the status of fine art in the 1890’s by Toulouse-Lautrec. On view at the MBNA in Closed for Business are paintings depicting chefs working frenetically, beautiful, languorous women, Surrealist Martini glasses with olives one would take for eyeballs, interiors that evoke the joyful domesticity of Matisse. Batlle’s idiosyncratic style belies his own personal obsessions, and liberally quotes a wide scattering of art historical figures, from early modern masters, to works by lesser known European modernists, as well as that of the “bad painting” that grew out of New York in the 1980s. Batlle’s expressive and grand style “networks” his oeuvre with culture at large with a kind of surrender to the modes of exchange that is inescapable in today’s art world. He does so without the cynical negation of institutional critique or the joyful embrace of it through relational aesthetics.  Ignoring the calls for “the end of painting,” Batlle still believes, like Richter, that humanity can be changed by painting; if not, one should get out of it some modicum of pleasure. He calls upon us to celebrate the good life, even if, in the end, it’s all an elaborate trap.

[1] Cited in Crimp, Douglas, “The End of Painting,” October, vol. 16, Spring 1981: 73.

[2] Joselit, David. “Painting Beside Itself.” October 130, Fall 2009, p. 132.