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Table Manners: Turning Restaurant Stationery into Art 

When New York-based artist Jay Batlle dines out, he’s still on the clock. Of course, he’s at the restaurant to feast and imbibe and commune with friends. Upon the meal’s consummation, however, he poses a question he’s been regularly asking restaurant staffers for the past decade. They oblige, and a blank sheet of the venue’s stationary is carefully placed in his hands. He’ll return home, and on it, in watercolor and pen and wine and coffee grounds, he’ll express his thoughts – on the evening, the atmosphere, the idea of decadence and societal consumption and what fine dining has become.

Batlle (pronounced “Battle”) chronicles this gastronomic collection, The Stationery Series, on his tumblr, Restaurant Restaurant. He eventually plans to turn it into a three-volume book, but he’s not stopping anytime soon. Here, we talk to the artist about New York cuisine, Balthazar, and pouring wine down the drain. 

Your art is decidedly epicurean. Why?

The conflation of dining and art is something that most people can relate to. I chose gastronomy because of its immediacy and because of my experience running restaurants. 

I had no idea they freely give out their stationery.

I just ask. But I’ll use whatever they give me, so if a restaurant doesn’t have its own stationery, I take a menu. Sometimes, friends give me stationery they’ve collected, and then I have to imagine what the atmosphere was like. It’s the contradictions in my life that mean something, and so I contradict any sort of structure I create – even the decision to use only restaurant stationery.

How do you choose the place?

The series is a trail of breadcrumbs of all the places I’ve eaten – a way to collect all these fabulous meals and the people I share them with. In a way, it’s a very classic approach to making art. I live in one of the gastronomic centers of the world, and there are so many restaurants to inspire me here. The choices are random and deliberate at the same time, like getting dressed in the morning. I wear a tie every day, but I change the color and pattern.

You’ve repeated a few venues’ stationery many times – Balthazar, for example. 

I think Balthazar has such an international appeal. Honestly, though, I recently went back after a few years of hiatus and became obsessed with drawing on their stationery. It’s really quintessential New York for me. It reminds me of the late 90s when I first came to the city to make it as an artist.

What materials do you use?

I mostly use custom-made watercolors, oil sticks, and ink. I’ve also used wine, coffee, food coloring, and squid ink. Like the stationery, my medium is just one aspect of the process. It all comes together to form a visceral experience. 

The series is replete with places like Mr. Chow and Momofuku. What about, say, a family-run restaurant in Harlem?

It’s definitely a focus of the work to question the value of social aspirations. I’m using iconic places that have a cultural value and past, similar to art, and contrasting those trajectories. Rao’s would be a place from Harlem that I would choose, because it’s iconic and has a certain type of majesty. But now it sells its own brand of pasta sauce. 

Are the proprietors aware of your art?

Many are, and they’ve been very supportive. Some have commissioned works.

I heard that one especially pleased patron expressed his thanks in fine wine, and you poured it down the drain. Really?

Yes. I took $5,000 worth of red and white wine – given to me as a gift from a collector of my work and very good friend – and, indeed, poured it down the drain. It’s an homage to Chelsea and the recent flooding from Hurricane Sandy that destroyed a lot of art. I called it “Apres Le Vernissage,” and set it to Brahms’s intermezzo opus 117 no. 1. It’s a simple gesture, but I think it makes its point.