By Patricio Zárate

When Jay Batlle called his exhibition “Free Lunch”, confusion ensued inasmuch as the National Museum of Fine Arts Salon happened to be located in an enormous shopping center. The word “free” is the polar opposite of everything a mall stands for; a mall, after all, is no more than a temple of mass consumption based on the use of cash and credit cards. It embodies the success of an economic model based on real estate speculation and the purchasing of goods and services. By contrast, a free lunch implies the kind of charity associated with philanthropic or religious institutions.

Batlle talked about this in an interview with me for the MNBA. Art”, he said, “as an act of generosity, is an act of aggression.”

His determination to follow this idea to its logical conclusion was shown from the moment he was invited to show his work in our museum. It triggered a series of collaborations that became a vital part of his exhibiting process during his stay in Chile.

The idea of advertising a free meal -in English- in a Chilean mall was designed to draw attention to Batlle’s exhibition. But it had unexpected consequences. For decades, Chilean marketing strategists have used the English language as a vehicle to demonstrate the superior quality of imported U.S. goods and foster brand discrimination between these and other products. In the process they have helped expose glaring social inequalities and the embarrassing ability, or the equally embarrassing inability, of different socio-economic groups to buy expensive imported luxury articles.

The idea of a free meal within the context of art is open to several interpretations. To claim that something is free in a museum located in a mall, is to deny the mercantile purpose of the venue. The only area where this is remotely possible is in the mall’s food court – a transit zone whose humble purpose is to satisfy our need for food, while offering a brief escape from our anxieties and hectic daily activities.  In short the food court is a place to spend time – and even celebrate – without paying all that heavily in money.

The archetype proposed by Jay Batlle’s work is that of a restaurant, that sophisticated institution wherein the ancient ritual of the family meal is shifted from the private sphere to the public one. Restaurants enshrine rules of behavior, manners and morality in a code that is universal.

As in a restaurant, Batlle’s allocation of spaces for his work is planned on different levels of information and distribution. In imitation of what happens in an art gallery, his art room replaces the dining room or the cafeteria; the works follow on one another’s heels like the images and objects that might feature in a local food store. Thus his narratives of cooking and feasting are linked together in a chain of images, all of them drawn from personal experience and transferred directly to printed backgrounds reproduced from newspaper and magazine critiques of each establishment.

These simple elements, when used as supports for drawings and graphics, have the immediacy of automatic writing, the spontaneity of neo-expressionism and the figurative elegance of comic books. In other works, Batlle’s greedy collector’s eye leads him into a realm of fragmented compositions that incorporate souvenirs, photos, small objects and cards. His art is compiled from the direct observation of an artist passing through, gathering small but revealing clues about life from his daily experience of different eating houses. He establishes relationships with other diners and weaves them into personal and fictional anecdotes of the contemporary world, in all its moods of hedonism and fun.

Batlle’s interest in the arrangement of the table is rooted in the first lessons of moral values provided by the family, a socialization process he equates to the acquisition of aesthetic taste.  As he sees it, the table plays an early and vital role in conditioning people’s later judgment when experiencing art.

All true art has its own founding myth. This may go through many different stages of interpretation before everyone can agree about it – and the convention on which they finally settle may be oceans away from the artist’s original intent. By way of illustrating this process, Jay Batlle cites the obsession of his mentor Paul McCarthy with certain cooking ingredients, demonstrating the intimacy that gave him so vivid an insight into McCarthy’s work. Batlle has a handle not only on McCarthy’s enthusiasm for the more extreme manifestations of Viennese Expressionism, but also on the significance – to his art – of his family’s business.  McCarthy’s father happened to own a mayonnaise and ketchup factory, which is one good reason why the body fluids used by the notorious Viennese were replaced in McCarthy’s work by cheap popular foods. Fast food ingredients form the basic repertoire for his installations and performances; indeed they are the interpretative key to his work.Thus we find that our most complex aesthetic experiences are directly related to our ordinary daily lives, and are nearly always far simpler and less sophisticated than we think.

Jay Batlle himself works within a frame of reference that is very clear indeed. According to him, by partaking in family meals we acquire and generate good judgment and taste at an early stage. Conversations at table shape our personalities and lodge in our memories, awaiting recovery. This recovery is prompted by the osmosis that takes place when our subconscious minds unexpectedly release information that activates memories of past experience. Like the installation artist and musician Mike Kelley, Batlle believes that if you repress a child you create a ticking bomb.

Our memory being what it is, we cannot recover everything at once and only time will allow us to reconstitute anything like the original scene. Nor can time regulate memory; all it can offer is the chance to open certain properly-stored compartments of our minds, whose contents may yet be subject to reinterpretation and later association. Batlle has a story about this: during the preparation of his exhibition he was swapping cooking stories with friends when he called to mind a restaurant from his early years that served aphrodisiac dishes. It was called the Horny Toad, and it was the perfect place to unleash the imagination of an oversexed youth. The artist remembers his father taking him to the Horny Toad when he was just old enough to learn about sex. The menu and the place helped to seal a new bond between father and son, creating the conditions for a dialogue which ended in the same way it started: wordless.

Many of the works exhibited here are the echoes of stories drawn from memory, or from notes and anecdotes picked up in the establishments Batlle regularly visits. In all of them illustrations are prevalent, reflecting the artist’s persistent habit of scrawling characters and caricatures filled with sarcasm and humor. He may sometimes use stationery or napkins as supports for these spontaneous drawings. In other pieces the graphics are dreamlike and visceral, while the use of typography, magazine ads and cuttings evokes collage.

Batlle’s use of paint and color stains is generally reminiscent of German neo-expressionism, but many of his figures on stickers follow the precepts of the comics he loved as a child. Once, in a Paul McCarthy class on emotional memory, Batlle was asked to produce a performance; he immediately remembered the day his father took him to a collectible toy car fair, at which he had his first glimpse of Spiderman outside the pages of a comic in the form of a three-meter-tall statue. He had never imagined the superhero being so huge, but what baffled him most was the giant bulge at the crotch. This upset him, being such a contrast to his earlier cuddly, if epic, idea of Spiderman. Reality had exceeded even his imagination.

On McCarthy’s orders, Batlle hurried to a department store to buy a Spiderman suit, but there were no adult-size Spiderman costumes around, all of them having been snapped up in the wake of the film remake. Only children’s costumes were left. So he settled for a size five suit, took it home and tried to squeeze into it. Inevitably, it stretched, then tore. In short the resurrection of his childhood memory had triggered a physical act that reflected the original traumatic experience of something grotesquely oversized.

A lived experience may modify long-forgotten memories by unlocking excessive attachments or wrongly interpreted things of the past, occasionally creating something fresh in the process. Art is linked to other, more dynamic systems; it can actually reassign meanings, suggest new approaches and modify our beliefs and habits. Our settings of tables, placings of cutlery, and ways of serving food all involve codes learnt in early childhood. These for the rest of us remain unaltered over time, but the artist may change and rearrange them as he wishes. In an act of conscious strategy, Batlle takes his time with his work, changing and rearranging. Sometimes he will go on to another piece before the first is finished; at other times he will completely alter his angle of view. In general he likes having a reactive stance vis-a-vis his own work, admitting his own opposition and resistance as part of the process.

The relationship between art and food as interpreted by Jay Batlle is an important extension of this neglected resource in the arts, which reveals intricate links with emotional memory and repressed behavior. For one thing food can provoke complex critical discourse. For another, it can justify the signs and codes that Batlle works with, all of which have stood the test of time.

Taste is what you get when you make correct decisions about your own well-being and pleasure. Good food is something that usually ends up on a table for people to enjoy. But culinary science is not limited to haute cuisine; today it has become a form of cultural and economic exchange, a way to compare models of cultural transfer, a part of the process of integration into a more complex form of society based on consumption and refinement.

Jay Batlle belongs to a generation of American artists who have responded to the precepts of minimalism and conceptualism. These artists aim to recreate the image and the social process in art, providing a channel for imaginary and everyday experience and forcing academic conventions to confront mass culture. The artist himself asks: What is the true meaning of art, getting to the top or having enough to eat?

Vast sums of money are traded on the modern art market every day, exerting ethical pressure on a constantly changing and uncertain activity. Art today moves in step with speculation and luxury, with no other goal than profit.

During the collapse of the U.S. economy in the year 2007 Jay Batlle disregarded the turmoil and speculation afflicting the art market by boldly going forth to eat and make art in the city’s restaurants, at a time when most others were shunning them. Joseph Beuys proclaimed every man an artist.  Martin Kippenberger said that every artist is a human being. For Jay Batlle, to be with others is to give – and generosity is the only true aesthetic.

Patricio M. Zárate

Manager / Curator

Museum without Walls Project 1*Statements recorded during interview carried out in August 2011, by Patricio M. Zárate and Jay Batlle in the cafeteria of the National Museum of