Istill have a card on my refrigerator from Phillips Gallery from 2005 that I am not ready to stop looking at — a computerized montage on Ralph Waldo Emerson by Edward Bateman with an Albert Einstein quotation: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
Bateman, 52, notes in his brief 15 Bytes artist’s biography that as a child of “what was then called the Space Age” he was torn between being a scientist or an artist, which is why the quote is so apropos. The computer, he writes, “allowed him to split the difference,” and in 1983 he began using it to create images. So while at age 9 or so he was faking photos of flying saucers, and as an undergraduate was doing fake UFO shots complete with handwritten eyewitness testimony (you can see a pattern forming here), by the early ‘90s he was working professionally in the field of digital imaging and now teaches and lectures internationally on the subject. His biggest surprise, he writes, was discovering that the tools he thought “would direct his thinking to the future have led him to contemplate the art of the past.”
Take the nineteenth-century cartes de visite, that were made in the millions and exchanged among friends — sort of the Facebook of the day, Bateman says (they were put in books that “contained all your friends as well as cards of celebrities, entertainers, generals and so forth that you could purchase to round out a collection”) — they have led him to endless hours of fascination and manipulation.
A lot has happened during the nine years since I stuck that card on the fridge. Bateman received the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Award in 2008 for his contributions to the arts, and his work was seen at Ken Sanders Rare Books in conjunction with Mechanical Brides of the Uncanny, a book of his images published by Nazraeli Press in 2009. He has participated in exhibitions in the UK, Germany, Poland, Hong Kong, Belgium, China, Finland, Lithuania, Canada, New Zealand and various locations throughout the United States. He no longer works retouching photos at Borge Andersen; instead, he is assistant professor at the University of Utah where he teaches art in the Photography/Digital Imaging program and received a prestigious Early Career Teaching Award in 2012.
The artist opens in a two-person show June 20 – July 11 at Phillips on the main floor with John Erickson. This is his fifth exhibit at the destination gallery on 200 South.
Much of his new work will be different than we are used to seeing, which makes Bateman a bit uneasy. As he has told his students, “Going to a gallery opening is like being invited to a party where you will be the only person in their underwear. It can be a very vulnerable feeling.”
“But I also tell students to value that vulnerability. That feeling is a sign of growth. It is what drives you to do your best; to keep trying. If you aren’t anxious, then you aren’t challenging yourself — and you aren’t caring deeply. And once that feeling goes away, maybe you’ve stopped making real art.”
He believes that if you listen, your work will tell you what to do next. “If you keep working on a project, if you keep getting into it, you get to know it better and start to understand it and then it all kind of comes together. Like the robots. I mean, doesn’t this sound intellectual — take the people out of pictures and put robots in their place. But it really served me well. Sometimes you have to trust the voice.”
He has what he terms “quirky” things scattered about the studio: a meteorite; a “conceptual” brick from Saltgrass printmaker Stefanie Dykes (wrapped in brown paper and labeled “BRICK”); a clay voodoo doll being kept moist in the sink; a cross on the bulletin board by Art Access artist Vojko Rizvanovic; and one that really stands out for him — Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s cards that are “sort of the I Ching for artists.” Titled Oblique Strategies: One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas, they say things like “Go to an extreme, move back to a more comfortable place”; “Would anybody want it?”; “Simply a matter of work”; “When is it for?”; and a favorite of Bateman’s: “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” He explains, “When you’re in a project and you get stuck you can draw a card and do what it says.” The deck is extremely worn.
You suspect that he’s going to be a little quirky from looking at his work (especially those automatons, his preferred term for the robots), but what doesn’t come across is the puckish charm of the fellow: Ed Bateman is delightful. There apparently isn’t much that doesn’t please or interest him. He’s into chocolate and books by John Barth and Haruki Murakami. He enjoys hiking. He doesn’t have pets (too busy) but keeps a rather sad jade plant in his office and a bromeliad at home. Though somewhat shy, he values his role as mentor and the process of interacting with students in the classroom. And on a recent trip to New Orleans he visited a voodoo queen — not for a consultation on his future, but just to inquire about her general outlook on life.
He lost his father, a psychiatrist, when he was 13, but visits his mother, an English major and former administrative assistant, regularly to help with chores and so they can work crossword puzzles together. A teaching day begins when the alarm goes off at an odd time, 8:43 or 8:47 – never simply 8:45 — after Bateman has been up until 3 a.m. working on his art or creating a class assignment (usually both), while listening to the “funky” online Radio Paradise, which he also treats his students to at the start of every class. He teaches from 10:45 a.m. until 5 p.m. then generally meets with students until 7 when he goes home for his dinner (a favorite is dinosaur-shaped chicken bites that he believes taste exactly like the extinct beasts) and a nap before returning to the department at 11 to work through much of the night — generally (but not always) undisturbed. That’s a pattern he got into as a graduate student and hasn’t unlearned. He thinks that’s the right time to make his images: “It’s like the intellectual obligation side of me leaves and I can really get into listening to the work — it just sort of flows out at that point,” he says. (He has maintained lately that two hours of making art equals one hour of sleep, but admits he may be wrong on this.)
Bateman usually works on two images at a time, in case he gets stuck, but typically only on one series. He might begin with a mental image, an idea, or even a really bad pun (he and U professor and artist Sam Wilson — famous for artistic puns — share a March 2nd birthday). The show at Phillips, Bateman explains, is tied in with a couple of key elements. One is blur. “Blur was the last element of our visual vocabulary to be added. It wasn’t until photography that blur became something that artists would use.” The other element is “pins and needles.” The one with the really bad pun, he says, is “A Camel and the Knee of an Idol.” He likes to build “little detail things” into his work. There’s a postage stamp that will be in the image near the idol’s knee with a camel on it that has the phrase: “Beware the straw.” Bateman quips, “That can be lethal to camels, I’m told.” A pun it must be confessed it took this writer a beat or two to catch.
One of Bateman’s processes is that everything has to have a thread or a connection. “Because I don’t make these things by setting up and taking a shot, I build and construct them.” (And he does, over endless hours; able to see and work on just a single small element at a time on the computer screen.) Everything, he believes, should be in his work for a reason. It all “has a partner or a buddy or a pal or some kind of conceptual linkage that makes things connect,” he says.
In “Transformation,” a girl in a carte de visite from the 1880s is dressed in a butterfly costume, so Bateman added a large butterfly on a chain. A butterfly, he explains, is an insect so you have other insects, ants, depicted in a living chain which is like the chain on the butterfly that is tethered to an eyelet, also a loop like the ants are in. “So I’m playing with scale and the scale of things is sort of strange and that makes me think about Alice in Wonderland so that’s why the bottle [depicted in the image] says ‘Drink Me’— the bottle is a container which is like a chrysalis which is why I have the chrysalis there which ties back in to the butterfly.” There are three rocks in the image, actually the same rock, but he changed its size, rotated it and changed its position: because those are the three things you can do with an object in space. “So it’s a great working strategy, to realize that everything has a partner, a connection, a reason. That’s one of my theories. Each image goes through a different journey but there’s always some little game – I guess I imagine that these things are in some sense real,” Bateman muses.
While his work begins in his head and finishes on the computer, there’s a lot to be done in between. “These are prints that I’m working on for the show [that he has informally titled “Pins and Needles”]. . . As I started to think about pins, pins are interesting. There’s this yin-yang connection with pins. They destroy and mend and create at the same time. We hold things together with pins but they always leave a hole. So maybe there’s a life lesson to be learned from pins. You can’t pass through life without leaving marks but you should try to leave those marks as small as possible. Do some good on the plus side but do as little bad as possible. That’s what pins and needles try to do.”
He has one piece he created in clay, based on Botticelli’s “Venus,” then wrapped with twine and stuck with T-shaped pins – the voodoo doll from the sink. “I started to think about how we try to use ideas of beauty almost like a voodoo doll, how we try to pull them in and use them for our own purposes. Advertisements are a little like a voodoo doll, hoping to manipulate us into whatever they want. Our idea of beauty has suffered as a result.”
Ed Bateman is modest about his art. “In some ways it all becomes reflections of what’s already in you that may be misplaced, that you’ve forgotten about that it’s time to rediscover. . . . When everything comes together you can sit back and say, ‘That came out of me?’ It doesn’t feel like something you did, it feels like something you participated in.”
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.