JAY BATLLE IN CONVERSATION WITH ANA FINEL HONIGMAN
In the film version of David Mamet’s masterpiece ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ Al Pacino, playing the satanically slick salesman Ricky Roma, lures a pitifully meek Jonathan Pryce into buying a piece of worthless property with an amoral monologue on what in life gives lasting value. “Great meals fade in reflection,” he says. “Everything else gains. You know why? ‘Cause
it’s only food. Just shit we put in us. It keeps us going. But it is only food.”
Roma is right that food quickly passes through us in a physical sense, but then again all experience is fleeting. And his disparaging argument is brilliantly rebutted by Brooklyn-based artist Jay Batlle’s paintings, sculptures, drawings and sound installations. As Batlle’s work demonstrates, Roma’s assessment of food’s real function in our lives is fundamentally misguided.
Though often consumed without introspection, food is one of the most symbolically and culturally significant aspects of every day life. Food does fortify us. And it is fuel. But food choices are fraught with risk, and what we eat determines how we live, how long we live and how well we live. Food facilitates social situations, binds friendships and family together, links individuals to their heritage, and can ease homesickness or alienate strangers. Increasingly, what we eat also demonstrates our intellectual, political, socio-economic, national, psychological and moral identities, and our aspirations for ourselves and our planet.
In his art, Batlle often references sophisticated New York City urbanite sources such as The New Yorker, the New York Times and the restaurant and foodie culture enjoyed by these publications’ high-end readers. He has also created an extensive series of dog tags and surf boards adorned with 24k gold-plated handcuffs and cut-up credit cards to represent the debt incurred by living beyond one’s means in a city like New York. But his work is less about the argot of an urban elite than it is an expression of his own knowledge about and admiration for good cooking, as well as his nuanced understanding of food’s symbolic significance on all stratas of contemporary society.
I met Batlle when I invited him to contribute to “And Who Are You?,” the show of artists from Saatchi Online that I curated in December at the Sara Tecchia Roma New York gallery. But I had seen Batlle’s work before, when a series of his napkin paintings, colored with coffee-grind, wine, food and other stains were featured in the booth for Paris’s Galerie Frank Elbaz at Berlin’s 2006 Artforum Fair. Also at the booth was another work by Batlle entitled “Cutting Out the Middleman,” an oddly elegant sculpture of a white, gleaming toilet with a Karlsburg pub tap affixed to its elevated flush tank which let loose a steady stream of liquid straight down into the bowl, offering metaphoric relief from a fair full to the bursting with earnest art.
For “And Who Are You?,” Batlle contributed three massive paintings propped up on folding chairs from his ongoing “The Minimalist Series,” which combine fragments of teaser lines and recipes from Mark Bittman’s New York Times culinary column, “The Minimalist.” Like the meals which might seem to be fleeting pleasures but actually have a lasting impact, Batlle’s drawing style appears swift and gestural, but its charm lingers on the artistic palate. In spotlighting the paintings for its online section, New York Magazine‘s Culture Vulture asked whether Batlle might be the “World’s Best Doodler?” And critic Rachel Wolff went on to write “All of us doodle, but not all of us do so in the form of Géricault’s ‘Raft of Medusa’. Not too shabby.”
Batlle, has shown extensively abroad as well as at the Whitney Museum, New York’s Thomas Erben Gallery, L.A’s The Happy Lion and Blum & Poe Gallery, but remains independent from gallery representation. This month, he will contribute to a show curated by Matthew Brannon called “Not So Subtle Subtitle,” at New York’s Casey Kaplan’s Gallery. We reflected on the lasting importance of great meals and great art over email as he prepared work for the show. And by the way, another rebuttal to Ricky Roma is the trenchant adage that “sex is for people who don’t have access to fine food.”
Ana Finel Honigman: Are you a foodie?
Jay Batlle: Yes. I looked up the Wikipedia definition: which told me I was. Click here to read the definition.
AFH: So, would you say that you’re more a gourmet than a foodie?
JB: I think so, because I do get really depressed if a meal is not up to my expectations. This is why I cook most of my own meals, and I guess this is why I make art. I see so much uninteresting artwork, but this inspires me to make art just as much as good work and good food. Take the Chelsea Art Mall in New York as an example; a bad day of shows there is worse than food poisoning.
AFH: You’re against the one-stop-shop pleasures of Chelsea?
JB: I’m not against being able to see art, or the convenience of Chelsea, but when the viewing experience becomes like a Sizzler all-you-can-eat buffet, the importance of thinking about what art means is lost, art starts to cancel itself out. Our viewing has become more like this because of the influence of art fairs, and the Internet. Everybody knows the price of everything, but doesn’t want to think about the work’s value. Somehow the context of art is irrelevant when something is selling. In many ways my work has dealt with value, sometimes in a literal way, such as debt on credit cards or the idea of tradition within the arts and the burden of history. I made a sculpture called “Credit Sharks 2008.” The inspiration was to correlate surfing on surfboards and shopping on credit cards; they are ritualistic obsessions within American society with different contexts, but similar structures. Surfing and shopping are individualist experiences that come in waves/sprees/swells/sales, and are contained within structures of repetition to try to gain/glean something, i.e. the ultimate wave or best pair of shoes. The surfer has a set of swells (things that waves come from) and their surfboard. They wait for the right wave, and then drop in, only to swim back out again. The shopper waits for the sale, and they have their Gap plastic, waiting for the best deal or sale, hunting and gathering in a postmodern way, waiting for the next season/reason to buy more. The credit card has a billing cycle of days for the shopper and this is like the high or low tides controlling the size of the waves for the surfer, both are cyclical, and go up and down. Your credit limit controls the size of your debt and the moon and weather makes the waves. In a Capitalist society, it is always more, higher, bigger, this is until you wipeout or run out of credit, and within this motion we decide our tastes, in typical looking out for number one fashion.
AFH: What city shows art better?
JB: I don’t think NYC is a bad place to see art, but the energy is different here. I guess Berlin was pretty amazing, but I haven’t been back in years. L.A. is fun if you like to drive.
AFH: You’ve been in some insane number of group shows. What do you think curators need to do right to pull off a good group show?
JB: Show interesting art and let that be the starting point, not the name of the artist, unless it’s a show about artist names.
I once curated a show in my one room flat of 4 meters by 5 meters in Amsterdam. It was a show to highlight the shit hole place a group of artists were living in because of the fellowship we were on. I asked 15 artists to participate, and it turned out to be a show with a political impact. I got kicked out of the program eventually.
AFH: Having shown with genuine legends and with emerging artists, do you think your work functions differently depending on its company?
JB: Yes, but I think it’s always the work. I was in a very good group show at Wallspace Gallery NY, curated by Slater Bradley. He showed a Martin Kippenberger Hotel drawing with my “Places Like This, Hate People Like You 2003-2005” book work. This really created an amazing context for both works, but I’ve been in exhibitions where at the opening I had to be a soccer goalie, because there was WAY TOOO MUCH work in a group show, and everything gets lost, and literally stepped on. I think shows in general should be a lot longer, and maybe more thought out, but necessity sometimes can create amazing things.
AFH: What do you think a person’s taste in food expresses about them within a larger human level?
JB: A person’s taste in food expresses their overall potential as a good guest for dinner. You can learn a lot about a person by having dinner with them, you can find out whether they are human or not.
AFH: And what kind of human – neurotic, Green, gluttonous, etc. Do you believe we are what we eat? How much information can we gather about each other based on something as seemingly prosaic as food preferences?
JB: I guess food and its social structure as a point of exchange/social critique is what I’m interested in, not its literal consumption. I think taste starts out with what we like or don’t like to eat, or decide what to not like, but this taste is bottled within the structure of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I like how language
pigeonholes things and like a menu and its typeface, your personal taste is affected by context. This is what attracted me to do the “Places Like This, Hate People Like You Series.” I wanted to make a work that dealt with the structure of location, or context and the burden of the past. I also needed a routine for my art-making practice away from the stereotypical studio experience. I took Martin Kippenberger’s empty (No Drawing, No Cry 2000) hotel stationary books and filled them with my own drawings. I liked that I could make a powerful multi-faceted piece at my kitchen table. The stationary was context to frame my work. I see the piece in relation to what Rauschenberg did with De Kooning – he erased the elder’s work, but instead of an endgame it became a beginning for me. When I was lost as an artist, it wasn’t too different to going hungry and being fed by a chef. A need was there and I filled it. Funny enough one of my favorite series of work by MK is his “Hunger Artist works” – they look like modernist figurative sculptures, Henry Moores with holes in the center, but in typical MK style the title changes the viewers’ relationship to the hole, the sculptural forms become empty stomachs. The starving artist; I’m interested in this notion and how it’s perceived in society. I find this a bittersweet reality. I think art is a specific social exchange, a specialized language not limited to words and specific cultures, and the kitchen table is our first attempt to create our own voice as a human, it’s our first context, or pedestal as an individual. I was very obsessed with the way food was presented, and from household to household this changed, I lived in at least twenty different homes growing up. I became aware of how context changes how we experience and perceive things. By filling the books of Kippenberger I created an overwhelming context to express my voice in. Each book is 494 pages and at this point I’ve finished three complete books since 2003. There are 750 books in the edition. It’s a project that I hope to complete before I starve to death.
AFH: Food is very politicized these days. Do you think that focus on what we eat as a reflection of who we are and what we believe is superficial or accurate?
JB: I would say accurate, and this is because our culture and an individual’s identity is created out of routine and the feeling that we have a choice in what we consume. This is how we construct our subjective realities, from skinny jeans to foie gras on toast points. I’m thinking of vegetarian alcoholics, post-Atkin’s bread-loving pescadarians, and recovering South Beach wheat-allergic bean counters.
AFH: Do you feel that most people you know eat abnormally?
JB: I think in general American people don’t make time to eat; it’s an afterthought. In France the whole place shuts down at lunch for at least and hour and a half. I find myself being annoyed that in New York it’s hard to create a routine of Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. I feel like all I can do here is work, so my eating routine suffers, but on the flip side there is some amazing food in this town. Maybe this is why I make work about the structure of food in NY, and in France I live this structure, and think about making work.
AFH: How are food and art related?
JB: This could be answered in so many ways, but in relation to what I do as an artist, I would say art and food are activities which define our social spaces, out of a routine and an attempt to communicate with other humans on this planet. These routines and transmissions are constantly being redefined by economics and taste, making our relationship to food and art similar, but also incredibly polymorphic. I think both art and food are specifically related to time, and this makes me think of mortality.
AFH: How so? We eat to live, but the actual amount of time we have meals in our body is extremely short. Art is not a biological necessity but it often acts as a means for us to elongate moments and stave off the mortality of our ideas or feelings. Do these both raise these issues because of their opposing relationship with mortality?
JB: I mean with “food” the time it takes to make it, and then consume it, not biologically but socially. I see the ritual of consumption and the exchange that takes place at meals as a structure that we gage our lives against. Think of the type of meal you have at a wedding and its duration, versus a lunch break if you were a video store employee. I see art as a break from reality, a moment of possible reflection, a pleasurable experience that becomes a memory that gives you a history. In the history of meals and the history of art there are many courses, and I have the same sensory system when it comes to art, and artists. I think that is why the Minimalist series made so much sense to me.
AFH: What do you respect or admire about Mark Bittman?
JB: That he is open minded and interested in food and art. I think the Minimalist column is a very important space for the food obsessed in New York. It’s like the art reviews on Fridays – both come out once a week, and give a political stance to something from a singular perspective, and somehow there is a lot at stake in this, because information for the masses is highly generalized by corporate entities, and this is why the world needs artists, writers, critics, and chefs.
AFH: You know that he gave a talk through the T.E.D. forum where he said that, as a product of fifties suburban thoughts about food, he hadn’t eaten a real, raw, unfrozen carrot until he was in college. What kind of food were you raised eating?
JB: I was lucky to grow up with an Italian mother who made great food from scratch and my father was a master sandwich maker. I do remember having a lot of chicken, because it was cheap and my family had a very limited budget. I think the one thing I remember was eating too much. I think most Americans think more is better, and this is not a good habit for 300 million humans.
AFH: Do you consider your art to be satire?
JB: Parts of my work could be described as satire, but to be really specific, I would use the term caricature.
AFH: How do you distinguish the two?
JB: I would say caricature isn’t confined to written words; it escapes the norms and limitations of written language. Somehow I think of satire as literary, which may be my understanding of these words, but this is exactly what I’m trying to get at with my artwork, a point where language becomes invalid and only art exists. Only misunderstandings, kinda like email.
AFH: Would you say that your work is a homage to foodie culture, or mocking it?
JB: My work is a genuine approach to making art about vulnerability, and the foodie is an identity that one adopts as armor in a mocking society. The minimalist series asked what’s more important: the actual work or the recipe behind it?
AFH: Do you prefer art that is funny?
JB: No, but my art deals with black humor, humiliation, vulnerability, misunderstanding, insecurity and laughter.
AFH: All of which is funny. Would laughter be a response you want to evoke from your viewers?
JB: Yes, I think it great that you find all those things funny, because I laugh when people hurt themselves, it’s a defense mechanism. I laugh when I’m nervous or scared, and rarely when I’m happy. Someone once said I was a ‘contradictionalist’. My laughter and my idea of humor is very twisted. Did you laugh when you saw “Cutting Out the Middleman” in Berlin?
AFH: Absolutely. I still do, when thinking about it. Do you think viewers tend to take art too seriously? Or prefer serious art?
JB: I think I’m very serious about art, and it should be taken seriously. I think people take the art world too seriously, which is a joke. I don’t know what people prefer, I just hope I’m doing something that puts people in a good mood. Like a fine meal.
AFH: Who is your ideal collector?
JB: Ken Freed.
AFH: Where do you eat?
JB: Usually at the table.
AFH: Any particular tables you want to promote?
JB: I like St John’s in London, and I spend a lot of time at my table in the garden having dinner parties. I try to create a certain social exchange in NY. It’s a great way to meet new people. Other tables… I would love to get a reservation at Momofuku Ko – David Chang sounds like an artist and the first paragraph in Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook reads like an artist’s life. I guess I should try Per Se.
AFH: What is your ideal meal?
JB: A Free Lunch.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic, PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University and Senior London Correspondent for the Saatchi Gallery’s online magazine. She is Art Editor of Alef (and contributes regularly to such publications as Style.com, Grazia, Tank, Sleek and Harper’s Bazaar.