By Fionn Meade

Responding, with a counterpoint, to an existent artistic movement or trending style has been a relied upon maneuver within New York’s art history. The acknowledgement of a constellation of artists spurs a corresponding series of artistic responses that includes both critique of what is called out as innovative and capturing the spirit of its time, thereby offering a move forward for what’s next but also an indebtedness of dialog to what preceded. Perhaps there’s even enough back and forth to dare to call it discourse or context-specific to the locale and scene.

The past twenty years or more, however, have included a departure from contemporary critical terms—including, for example, 1980s and ‘90s phrases ‘appropriation’ and ‘institutional critique’ (which hold their own specificity within NYC art parlance)—toward a ‘now’ landscape of painting that is both replete with niche approaches and perhaps divided in even wanting to rely upon any shared critical terminology. No longer hemmed in, nor faithful to such counter-narratives as provided by previous critical apparatuses, the range of artists working with painting as a primary medium in New York alone, for example, do not fit neatly into any “third wave” postmodern arguments of or for criticality. There’s the “Zombie Formalism” of a few years ago that popular critics like Walter Robinson or Jerry Saltz have identified as decoration-friendly abstraction done for the market in “haggard shades of pale, deployed in uninventive arrangements that ape digital media, or something homespun or dilapidated,” [1] alongside a more recent painterly trajectory of resurgent classical figuration and portraiture—ushered in under the Age of Trump—that runs toward both resistance and protest imagery and an inclusive celebration of cultural and gender specificity.

Indeed, these are just two of a number of painterly styles currently in canvas circulation, existing seemingly in isolation from each other, underscoring how trends and styles of what’s new may no longer need to come into direct conversation. The result is a paucity of what could amount to a critical tension between these two styles, along with others, whereby despite being shown by the same galleries, whether via in-house exhibitions or at art fairs, the dialog around painting has atomized at best into discussions of image-repertoire. The place of painting is clearly no longer based on either debating endgame strategies of painting’s much discussed demise, nor upon responding to, and countering innovative recent work. With the presence, and punitive repercussions of surveillance now embodied, networked, and connotative rather than accounted for by journalistic or documentary tactics within artistic practice—the versioning of the critical image in contemporary American painting is unmoored from any predominant or hierarchical critical discourse. Recombinant as a result, painting can take full advantage of the ubiquity of Instagram, Tumblr and the sortable image archive effect of the Internet, and the increased familiarity with sequencing, batching, and ganging images together that comes with these applications. And yet the ways to interrupt the reception of images and create an alienating or distancing effect through painting is perhaps ever more difficult in the contemporary culture that results. 

For New York-based artist Jay Batlle, the critical potential of painting has, over the past ten years, relied upon an intimate experience with and critical attitude toward signifiers of elite taste and excess. In the form of peripatetic and concurrent drawing and painting practice that excerpts the logos and emblems embedded in fine restaurant menus and hotel stationery as the mis-en-scene and backdrop for his own unruly brand of tragicomic figuration, Batlle responds to painting’s ambivalent contemporary landscape with a recipe that is equal parts bravado and the performed humility of a fool’s errand. With his Stationery Series (2008-16), for example, the quick turn of his wry draftsmanship is on full display via a compilation of artifacts gathered via Batlle’s travel throughout the U.S. and Europe. The cultural references to the lifestyle trappings of an artist constantly on the go, or a collector off to their next art fair, are depicted with an unease and anxiety that becomes part and parcel of the artist’s depiction of itinerancy. The fragmented and diaristic nature of Batlle’s drawing upon hotel stationery, (a form that intentionally evokes similar interactions with the incidental and performative drawings of many artists, including Martin Kippenberger and Sigmar Polk, in particular) creates a resulting satire of the contemporary Grand Tour. The imagined stamps of contemporary luxury and guaranteed ease are instead cordoned off and re-directed toward a kind of implicit labor and low-key melancholia. The well-heeled itinerary of the traveler transitions into the eroded traces of a trip’s promise turned toward the analytic and questioning. 

Tell-tale of this forced ennui is the title of Batlle’s compilations, in book form, of hotel stationery, Places Like This Hate People Like You 2003-2016. An eleven-volume work of 2,728 drawings that inverts luxury and comfort into isolation and doubt while nevertheless maintaining a sense of humor, the gathered together and bound stationery becomes a conflated relic of bygone days and a literal imprint of wine imbibed as questions raised by the artist come to the forefront, whether in regards to his own work or his place in a larger art context. In this accumulative strategy the work recalls the distillation strategies of Swiss artist and designer Dieter Roth’s Flacher Abfall (1975-1992) wherein the latter collected food packaging and other related scraps in more than 600 binders, noting that “Every day sings a little song, there are themes in a way, of cities, and then you see the trips, by airplane, you can see—well I can see at least all of that when I leaf through the binders.”[2] In Batlle’s outlook the hotels visited becomes an atlas of withdrawal and reflection where stops along the way allow for a wide range of actions to take place over time, from his performative imprinting of an inked stamp of the shoes worn each day to unadorned poetic fragments and one-line retorts to art history and the politics of the day. Taken as a whole, this particular eleven-part work captures the playful yet questioning nature of Batlle’s overall aesthetic in perhaps its most direct expression, tacking readily from hilarious to darkly introspective. Inspired by and literally filling the pages of Martin Kippenberger’s No Drawing No Cry (2000)—whichconsists of reproductions of empty hotel letterhead which Kippenberger was no longer able to scrawl upon as the concept, design, and choice of stationary were outlined before his death in 1997 to be a statement of emptiness and afterword—Battle’s work is equal parts critique and uneasy homage as the imagineditinerary of excess is queried and played with.

The holdover style of branding found in Batlle’s use of hotel stationery lead to the artist’s longstanding use of menus and restaurant stationery as blown-up poster-like backdrops and substrata for his drawings and paintings. A more public and convivial expression of quality and supposed good taste, Batlle’s digital transposition and enlargement of menus from a wide range of high end, well-received restaurants he has frequented or visited plays foil to a sustained criticism that is informed by his having worked in the service industry. Batlle’s scenes are populated with wine bottles, the aftermath of lavish dinners, strewn with credit cards and other indicators and symbols of informed consumerism, upending the implicit enjoyment of good taste to be found in fine dining into a mixed reservoir of unchecked excess offset by ribald humor. A pathology of the increasingly fetishized status of the savvy gourmand emerges that is by turns voracious and informed as well as antic and incisive. The grotesquerie that invades the work, in part, is offset by wit and assured draftsmanship in Batlle’s resulting vision as the smaller scale works in the series are by turns whimsical and off-putting. Having grown in number to more than 1,200 works within the series Battle is known to occasionally trim the fat and cleanse the palette from time to time by shredding those that no longer resonate.

It feels as though Batlle’s circulation of emblems and logos of status desire to animate themselves, to become characters: the waiter, the chef, the collector, the conversationalist, the withdrawn poet, the fashion-conscious actor, the well-heeled gallerist, all seem to have been invited into the series as the subject of advancing art today is taken apart like a piece of meat. Impoverished and revealing faces alike—grimacing, mouthing, sighing with pleasure, and spiteful—are put in service of the implied economic service of the restaurant to the well-off client and a resulting critique that is hard to evade: art like an overpriced meal is to be enjoyed with the knowledge of its non-value or necessity. The sated pleasure of appreciating what lies on the table supine is akin to liking a well-depicted though re-hashed sleeping figure in a painting, just as the quality implicit in the upright status of a grand-cru wine label is undercut in Batlle’s contour by the nervy nature of his caricaturesque figuration and its constant search for the next target. In contrast to Batlle’s decision to exhibit the works from this series in small conversational groupings, the related larger paintings accrue reference points within each composition and appear to wait for the right admixture of ribald pathos, while the smaller scale series attains its power in assembly, as evidenced by the display in his most recent museum exhibition Closed for Business at the Museum of Fine Arts Santiago de Chile(2017).

Batlle’s fragmented transposition of the rise of restaurant culture over the past ten plus years is intentionally impoverished and partial as a sustained aesthetic. Having left the boundaries of photography’s discourse long ago to become ubiquitous and an inevitable companion to its pristine advertorial cousin, the appropriated, untethered image stands to the original (in this case the logo and insignia) as a persistent layer in contemporary painting. As Hito Steyerl writes in her essay “In Defense of the Poor Image,” “The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. It transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction,” and thereby dissolves the hierarchy of the image that appropriation and institutional critique relied upon for their dynamism.[3] Readily deployed, the poor image of gourmand culture embedded in Batlle’s corroded menus is analogous to the art object that more often than not brings the art world to the table in the first place.

Once status-defining symbols (and the corporate entities they intimate) are on the verge of becoming archaic in Batlle’s most recent series, PEAK RAMEN 2022 (2018).Batlle plays with the push and pull of the such instantly recognizable yet increasingly outmoded icons as the prestigious department store Bloomingdales and the once legendary one-stop locale for gourmand-savvy shoppers Dean & Deluca. Using the appropriated designed image of the culinary as an entry (as opposed to an end) point of critical re-presentation, Batlle seamlessly adheres a wide-ranging array of subjects via his use of these as backdrops. The Butcher’s Daughter 2022 (2018), for example, pulls in the faded logo for a recent-to-the-scene Manhattan restaurant that positions itself as a “vegetable slaughterhouse” for “pretty juices.” In Batlle’s language, the daughter reverts to a Picasso-like nude posing within the outlined figure of a chef holding up a rabbit special for the evening. Red and black dominate in contrast telegraphing the skewering commentary of the ethically superior vegan option promised. The cleverly cute nature of the restaurant promising an evolved role is repositioned as preening in Batlle’s critique. An instrumentalizing of image vis-à-vis language circulates throughout Batlle’s work, consciously echoing and explicitly referencing a canon of modernist stylings (from Francis Picabia to Pablo Picasso to Francis Bacon), which are repeatedly adhered to the presence of a logo and advertorial emblem. Indeed, Batlle’s half-life references to the art historical alongside culinary and consumerist signpost are surrogate to one another as if understudies to an existential crisis that is never completely enacted, only mapped out.

Expanding from his subject matter, Batlle resurrects and assembles past tropes of the artist-as-genius into depleted stances and reverent gestures, jokey and severe at the same time through his approach. His working style is quick and color-saturated, interrogating late capitalist sensorial oppression with a mix of calculated collage and expressive tension. It has an attitude of presence that is familiar, conversational, bordering on impolite but also aiding and abetting. The figure of the painter painting in Cubist Chef 2022 (2018) is that of the clowning fool, a comic take on the plein air impoverished painter of old, but also the downtown gestural artist with accompanying drink, his phallic sheath of oversize brushes, and accompanying stovepipe chef’s hat. In other words, the figure of the artist is pulled in many directions and put back together in Batlle’s parody of any definitive or singular contemporary style. An important effect arising from the image-based relativism that has resulted from our having under-analyzed the acceleration of the ‘networked-image’ and its cultural impact is that promises of information and access to all corners of the globe have lost their power to portray what a surveyable world might be or look like, let alone critique.

Having experienced the exhaustion, paucity of the veritable, and inevitable fallout that results from the rhetoric of networked aesthetics, the answer of what to survey critically within the framework of contemporary art looks, perhaps increasingly, to tactile and experienced ambivalence. Artists using the ease of digital transposition that might have been previously received as trafficking in the criticality of pictures, are more accurately working from the “photographic” as nothing more than “graphic,” a mobility that readily extends via digital means into video, printmaking, painting, drawing, sculpture, and beyond. Batlle’s transposition of contrasting graphic fragments pulls readily from multiple sources—the now ubiquitous posters of a pig or cow in graphic outline that tell responsible consumers where the cuts of meat they are buying come from on the animal are deployed in multiple paintings—while also supposedly conveying the responsible nature of the purveyor—is forced onto the smear portraiture style of a Francis Bacon-like composition in Meat Head 2022. This style of conflation is taken even further in The Most Expensive Hamburger 2022, which pokes fun at the auction sale of Francis Bacon’s portrait of Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, (1964) for $47 million, noteworthy as Moraes,a close friend of Bacon’s lived a quite perilous life of sustained poverty for much of her life. With the logo from Manhattan’s midtown 21 Club emblazoned atop Batlle’s large-scale canvas—a one-time historic speakeasy turned tourist trap featuring overpriced fare—Batlle embraces a direct critique of the valuation of a modernist picture that once pushed boundaries and is now described as “most seductive painting of a female figure ever realized by Francis Bacon.” This relates to his forcing a future date into the titles of his most recent paintings as the shifting terms of value are underscored and laid bare in his layered references to excess.

While affect, gesture, and melodrama abound in Batlle’s work his imagery interrupts and prevents the catharsis of any ultimate plot and narrative denouement, the familiar substitutions of the artist as waiter or chef, the iconic menu, and the romantic vista of the impeccable evening shared by all dissipates in Batlle’s recent canvases. The paintings and drawings seem to depict a receding idyll of late capitalist life, wherein a true pleasure in products, things, and clichés is perhaps increasingly unavailable. This tension is present in the artist’s own satirical yet completely transparent use of a custom stamp “Jay Batlle Inc.” on many drawings, the most highly collected trajectory of his work. As if acknowledging the half-full nature of painting as a contemporary medium, Batlle often creates aggregates of drawings and direct wall paintings alongside his works on canvas. The result is a raucous masquerade of stances with charm to spare that is nevertheless resolute in its critical aim at the ambivalent landscape of contemporary painting. Such “transient withdrawals”[4] as Batlle achieves in his recent series—to borrow a phrase of Freud’s that describes the temporary distraction that art provides from our “vital needs”—approximate a neo-epicurean creed that readily demands more pleasure from our critique.

[1] “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?” Vulture, June 17, 2014

[2] Dieter Roth in an interview with Irmelin Leeber-Hossmann, in: Barbara Wien (ed.), Gesammelte Interviews (Berlin: Galerie & Kunstbuchhandlung Barbara Wien, 2002), 10.

[3] Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image,’ e-flux Journal #10, 2009

[4] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930, p. 80-1