Andrew Batcheller: Flights of Fantasy
written by Charles Goodin
IT'S THE SCENE'S UNAPOLOGETIC bleakness that first draws me in: a bird, perched pensively on a dry, weathered branch and framed only by the slightest hint of a wispy, blue dusk. As the creature's beady eye bores into mine, I begin to see the tableau as the solemn epilogue to a story of apocalyptic proportions — one in which the sole survivor of some world-rending disaster needs no words to indict my character.
"What have you done?" it seems to ask in a way that, in my head, sounds less like a question and more like an accusation.
For a single, tense moment, it’s as if I am a spokesman for all mankind, called upon to answer for our collective crimes against nature. I want to plead our case — to tell my inquisitor that some of us did all we could to stop whatever calamity brought us to this point. But there’s no explaining away a travesty of this magnitude, and I soon feel the familiar creep of shame tugging at my gut.
Then, as abruptly as it began, the fantasy ends, interrupted by the comfortably familiar, yet paradoxically foreign voice of the man whose artistry crafted it in the first place. Suddenly, it’s back to reality, and I’m introducing myself to Andrew Batcheller on a muggy, overcast mid-June day in northern Springfield, Missouri.
We’re here for the Moon City Creative District’s Summer Solstice Art Festival, a gathering of creatives from throughout the Ozarks at historic Lafayette Park. And although talent abounds at the many tents surrounding us, Batcheller’s ultra-surrealist, often macabre paintings draw immediate attention from nearly everyone who passes by his space.
Needless to say, our ability to speak is limited, but we agree to stay in touch, and I depart with The Cunning Nature of Dusk, the work that first caught my eye, tucked carefully under-arm. Days later, speaking by telephone from his Joplin studio, Batcheller is intrigued by my interpretation of the piece, which bears a passing — if melodramatic — resemblance to the real life events which helped inspire it.
"It was one of a series of 12x12 works for a Dakota Pipeline show honoring the protesters, who were so brave and so selfless — and they failed,” he explains, referring to the Native American group who, in 2016, opposed construction of an oil pipeline that now passes through their source of clean drinking water. “I just took the ibis, which is a really strong Indian symbol, and put it in 14 different settings. For this one, I ended up changing the bird because I wanted a dangerous, cunning, sneaky look — the way dusk can come up on you sometimes when you’re enjoying the day.”
Themes of social consciousness are evident in much of Batcheller’s oeuvre (another work on display at the show was accompanied by literature explicitly detailing its roots in the science behind climate change). But he is quick to note that the inspiration for one of his paintings should never be used to invalidate viewer interpretations like mine.
“I’ve always been a very political person, very fascinated by it. This election, and for the past two years what has been happening in our country, has thrown me completely out of what I felt like was my safe world. So, a lot lately has been focused on that charade that’s going on. I always try to juxtapose the horrible thing I’m focused on and find the beauty in it,” he says. “But I don’t want to make it all about my idea. That’s where it’s coming from, but I want it to be open to interpretation. I don’t want my idea to be the focus, I just take that idea and take it where the painting goes.”
The end result is often grotesque and haunting, a style perhaps best exemplified by the competing themes in The Gentle Cathedral of Thin Ice on the Bud, a piece featuring the skull of “a mythical, kind of evil creature” rising from a pool of blood and the “calm, loving faces” of quail pouring clean, clear water over it.
Although casual observers are likely to take note of the beast rather than the birds, it’s the latter of the two that forms a connection to Batcheller’s larger body of work, in which he uses images of the feathered class to portray various aspects of humanity.
“Every species of bird, they have something that can be translated to a human trait, even in the look in their eye or the shape of their beak. They can be fierce, or angry, or sad. But it’s a cleaner vision of what you’re trying to get across,” he says. “There’s none of that clutter, or preconceived ideas. So they are actually portraitures of human beings. I just choose the bird to fit whatever I’m trying to translate.”
Their usefulness as human proxies aside, Batcheller’s avian interest is also a sentimental one that exists at the intersection of his professional life and personal history. He vividly recalls deciding to become a painter the moment he laid eyes upon one of his aunt’s bird paintings at the tender age of five. That experience set off a whirlwind of early artistic efforts, culminating with a bid at the Kansas City Art Institute — one which failed to net him a degree, but gave him the skillset he needed to embark on a career in professional painting.
That led, in turn, to a quarter century spent creating church murals before he made the difficult but rewarding decision to go it alone.
“I just came home one night, I looked in the mirror — I’d had a rough day, I was covered in paint, I was tired from climbing the scaffold … and I said, ‘When are you gonna do it, jackass?’” he recalls.
Batcheller knew he would need to create something special if he hoped to be successful, a goal achieved at least in part by choosing a unique medium for his work. Rather than the traditional oil-on-canvas or watercolor routes selected by many of his contemporaries, Batcheller’s work is done almost exclusively on linen or silk, which he hand-stretches and frames personally before beginning to paint.
“It’s an early bonding with the painting. You’re already part of it before you start it,” he says. “It’s just great to paint on because there’s no texture, but it makes the process difficult, because you can’t afford to mess up. You don’t have those little squares to distract or hide, so you have to be very precise.”
To say that the finished product is precise does not do justice to the degree of infinitesimal detail and care evident in each piece. Composed of bold, intricate lines and impossibly smooth gradients, each scene feels startlingly real despite its ultra-surreal subject matter — at once psychedelic and grounded; absurd and authentic; and, a bit like Batcheller himself, foreign and familiar.
The indispensable birds often join other icons of nature (scratching insects and sprawling vines, most often) beneath languid, mellow skies and atop turbulent oceans, somehow crafting a coherent image of seemingly competing themes.
It’s a struggle not unlike the one that ultimately drives Batcheller to continue perfecting his craft: that of the inherent futility of living versus man’s innate urge to persevere.
“Thinking globally — that’s what changes the world, not some guy sitting in his studio all day doing paintings. I feel like everything I do is a battle royale against that. Everything is a fight to the death. A lot of it is a desperate desire to live forever — to not die, in some form or fashion,” he admits. “I’ve got to make it matter. I’ve got to make it matter as much as it possibly can. I can’t waste this life, however senseless and pointless and meaningless it is. It’s still happening. I can go live under a bridge and drink vodka all day, or I can go make the most out of this — with all its faults — beautiful world.” DM
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