The few blocks of West 20th Street between 8th Avenue and the Chelsea piers on the Hudson hosts one of the highest concentrations of art galleries in Manhattan. On a cool, misty November evening, most of these galleries on the ground level were brightly lit. In one, an attendant sat unmoving at her desk, sculpture-like in a mostly empty space. Another was cluttered with recently unpacked artworks and their empty, wooden shipping crates.
By contrast, the street’s only dark spot was that which housed the former Bayview Correctional Facility on the corner of 11th avenue. At street level, its solid brick walls preserved its hidden past. The Manhattan grid bears contradictions like this that impose a semblance of symmetry on radically different places and the lives that are, or have been, held within.
That evening, this divide was dramatically bridged when artist Gil Batle’s debut show, Hatched in Prison, opened at the Ricco Maresca Gallery across the street from the former prison. Ricco Maresca, located on the third floor of a loft building, is small but welcoming. Nineteen ostrich eggs, rendered skeletal by Batle’s intricate carvings, are displayed in two of the gallery’s rooms, bathed in soft light staged to appear as if emanating from within them. The works give glowing form to scenes of abuse, violence, and regret.
Batle’s is an unlikely story of recognition attained at long last, of crafting beauty out of extreme hardship, and of an artist who has found his ideal medium. For decades, life had not been easy on Batle, yet a mere year and a half after taking up this new craft, he has earned critical acclaim, major media coverage, and a sold-out show in Chelsea. How did this happen? Why now, after two decades in and out of California prisons? Why ostrich eggs? Why in New York?
An eager crowd quickly encloses around Batle and we retreat to a relatively quiet corner near to speak with Norman Brosterman — one of the gallery’s agents and the man credited for ‘discovering’ the artist. On the lookout for rarities, Brosterman noticed one of Batle’s early eggs on display in a glass case at a trade show held in the Javits Convention Center. Batle’s brother, who trades in souvenirs, was there showing his and his brother’s wares, including Batle’s carved egg. It immediately drew Brosterman’s attention; the right egg had appeared in the right place at the right time.
The carved eggs’ journey from convention center to the Ricco Maresca Gallery was relatively quick: the owners were captivated by Batle’s meticulously worked, emotionally charged pieces. So, it seemed, was everybody else in the gallery on opening night. As a group of college students, art collectors, and old friends gathered around Batle, the space was filled with a sense of poetic justice. A woman who identified herself as a high school classmate of Batle’s told us she had always believed that he was gifted.
Batle has spent much of his life in and out of prison. He was originally convicted for a crime not unrelated to his talent: forging traveller’s checks. Behind bars, Batle drew designs for tattoos and family portraits from photographs: an occupation that granted him a special, protected status in an extremely violent environment. As Brosterman points out, it was Batle’s artistic skill that both landed him in prison, as well as kept him safe while there.
A recovering addict, Batle moved to the relative peace of a small island in the Philippines after his last release in 2007. Contrary to what the exhibition’s somewhat misleading title suggests, his works were not in fact “hatched in prison” — though the experiences imprinted on them certainly were. The artist only started carving ostrich eggs a year and a half ago, when his brother suggested he try it. While Batle had already painted chicken eggs in order to sell them to tourists, as well as dabbled in the carving of graphite, he hadn’t yet combined the material and the technique.
Brosterman says this moment was “a creative explosion waiting to happen.” According to Batle, it takes him only two to three weeks to complete an egg. He explains to a group of wide-eyed art students visiting from Pennsylvania that the process is similar to letter-writing — he starts with a general idea and partly invents the scenes as he goes; carving feels for him like the experience of the words flowing out onto the page.
One of the eggs in the show, “Abscond: Letters from Jonathan”, in fact, engages this theme. Batle depicts the difficulty of communicating with his son while feeling acutely ashamed of his status as an ex-convict. Yet, through carving, the artist found a language where words had eluded him. With the first ostrich egg, Batle went too far; he created forms so thin that its shell cracked. He destroyed this early attempt by smashing it on the floor, but nonetheless continued to carve, spurred on by the fact that he simply has so many tales to tell and this medium helps him do it.
There is no beginning and no end to the images and words he carves on the spherical surface of the eggs. Yet, in circumnavigating his works, the viewer can string together narratives. Perhaps this is a medium better suited than linear writing to the recurring pattern of Batle’s traumas or to the cruel routine of prison life and culture.
“Reception: Fresh Fish” explains the rituals of prison admittance. Against an implausibly thin wire-fence pattern effectively reducing the eggshell to near nothingness, Batle displays the objects each new inmate is given upon arrival: a toothbrush, comb, safety razor, soap, and toilet paper. Other eggs depict beatings, rape, and domestic violence in paradoxically delicate relief. Batle’s art resembles those medieval ivory pieces exhibiting exquisitely carved scenes of the Crucifixion or the Expulsion from Paradise, so simultaneously morbid and beautiful that it’s impossible to avert one’s eyes.
Among the most accomplished of the works is “San Quentin”, which includes vignettes of a prison brawl, drunken revelry, and a menacing guard standing amid rows of prisoners. These rows extend into the distance in a stunningly sharp perspective, and the depictions of drinking and the brawl show no less than four layers of objects overlapping in depth; A feat that seems impossible for an eggshell.
Two of the scenes are ingeniously framed by the round shapes of a pair of handcuffs. Around the top of the egg, decorative bands show scorpions and vultures–like the ornamental patterns winding around Greek pottery vases. Batle is a master of his craft, equipped with substantial visual erudition. He weaves a myriad of sources into his designs, and gives irresistible aesthetic appeal to narratives with the power of a punch to the face. The balance is just right. The work retains a lack of polish that preserves the rawness of the violence it depicts. Nonetheless, it is not so aggressive that the viewer cannot sympathize. It is rare, indeed, for an artist’s work to achieve such equilibrium.
What we discover is that Batle also offers an eloquent honesty and a presence that captivates his audience. He tells the Pennsylvania art students that success is relative; when the day is done and the show is finished, he will still have to return home and face his issues. He asserts that each person, himself included, is like one of his carved eggs: pleasing to behold from a distance yet, under closer scrutiny, fraught with pain and personal struggles.
Batle shares stories and imparts wisdom; he does not shy from vulnerability. Long unseen relatives from California appear in droves, and Batle eagerly embraces them. At one point, he playfully laughs at the contradiction of these reunions bringing him close to tears while also feeling the need to maintain the hardened exterior befitting his reputation. A man who has waited for decades to express himself is now owning the moment, fleeting and fragile as it may be.
Opening night carries on, afloat on the buzz of good wine and spontaneous conversations the works so easily spark. By the time we take our leave, the gallery continues to fill with new arrivals. On our return walk, the hulk of the former Bayview Correctional Facility looms behind us, facing away from this gallery row and out across the Hudson River. Its mute walls preclude any speculation as to what went on inside, or what occurs in any other of this nation’s correctional facilities. Many more stories remain untold, but we certainly caught a glimpse.