Chris Bathgate’s sleek, exacting sculptures can make an observer feel—at first, anyway—like a kid in a manga store. Wrought from aluminum, brass, bronze, and other alloys, this Essex, Maryland native’s rigorously engineered art “objects” bear a decidedly alien cast. Those pieces assembled as part of “REINVENTION: The Work of Chris Bathgate”—on display at the Baltimore Museum of Industry through March 11—seem, initially, wholly unrelated to neighboring exhibits. One striking object resembles a severed robotic tentacle separating into quadfurcated claws at each end, while others suggest incomprehensibly structured kitchen slicers and exoskeletal afterburners in miniature. Yet the outlandish hyper-reality of Bathgate’s craft yields the further one wades into this exhibit. Here are mounted, tri-colored things that look like stationary pinwheels; there is a shiny, sea urchin simulacrum and a series of impeccably designed ovals that could be Decepticon Faberge eggs. Such is the grace of these designs that the eye is fooled into believing that each object is far lighter and less substantial than it actually is.
Bathgate came to the attention of the Baltimore Museum of Industry after he won a Baker Artist Award in 2014. The public reaction to the exhibit, which launched last spring, has been “overwhelmingly positive,” according to museum Executive Director Anita Kassof. “It’s been extremely helpful in making people think in new ways about the intersection of industry and art. School children really respond to the objects, maybe because they’re reminded of Transformers or robots, but this work can be appreciated on so many different levels.”
On a blustery Saturday in late January, The Beat sat down with the 1998 Carver Center graduate in Towson to discuss the nature of his chosen medium.
Baltimore Beat: What were the origins of this exhibit, and how did you decide what you wanted to include?
Chris Bathgate: The exhibit came about because I approached the museum with an idea for the show. And when I contacted the museum, they promptly replied that “oh, we were just thinking about you—we were gonna contact you!” It was like a perfect match. One of the motivating factors was that I’ve been showing my artwork at commercial galleries and museums and different “white boxes”—white pedestals, white walls, sterile boxes—for a long time, and I think that makes it harder for people to understand the subtext of the work, that there’s this underlying engineering and craft to it. I think people approach the work like they do any other work, as these surface objects, and they’re looking for visual references, not subtext. I was hungry for an environment that illuminated some of the things that maybe suffer in a gallery environment. The Baltimore Museum of Industry is perfect for that. Hopefully people can make a connection between the machine shop in the back and some of the industrial cues, between the objects I’m making and the objects in the museum’s collection. That was the hope. We did try to choose works that relate to objects already in the museum. We placed some objects in specific areas to try to emphasize those connections.
BB: In the materials for this exhibit, you observed that there’s not a lot of machinist art. Can you speak a little about that, and about what you’ve found?
CB: There’s nobody who’s taken machine work as a vocation and undertaken a direct artistic exploration of that craft like I have. There are lots of examples of artists taking a very formalistic approach to photography or painting to see what that technology is good for artistically, to see what potential it has. As far as I know, there are no machinists doing that. There are a lot of craftspeople working with machine tools; there are a lot of fine artists hiring machinists to make designs for them, or co-opting the technology in some way. But there are no artists that are sort of approaching machining as a medium and trying to find expression in it that I know of, in that very intentional way.
BB: My immediate reaction to your work, before I really dug in, was to be reminded of anime or manga illustrations, of tentacles; I imagine that’s what comes to mind for quite a lot of people. I still see that, but there are also a lot of natural world elements—some pieces look like eggs, or flowers, or undersea creatures. Then there’s the aspect that makes this art a good fit for the Baltimore Museum of Industry, which is industry itself; these are very graceful and very beautiful pieces, but they’re also made of cold, hard steel and they’re super-engineered. This isn’t coming right out of your brain, this is something you have to build. How do you see the work that you’re doing?
CB: Reactions to my work usually fall into a couple of different categories. Some people are like you, and they see anime-influence, they see manga-influence. Some people come right out of the gate seeing sci-fi, like raygun gothic; some people are engineers, and they go right in for the construction. And I think that’s what’s really interesting about this craft. What I think I’m trying to do is see what sort of design cues arise out of the constraints of someone who has to build and engineer objects that only have an aesthetic consideration—
BB: Meaning that they don’t have to do anything?
CB: They don’t have to do anything. The contrast I was originally going for is that there are these objects that are highly engineered, but they don’t have to do anything, they don’t have a function even though they have all this utility built into them, and I think that’s a very beautiful contrast. Most sculpture is like a statue, right?
CB: It’s a superficial shape and the inside is homogenous. It’s just a casting, a wood carving, or anything else. But my works have these very elaborate internal assemblages that don’t just hold them together, but influence the designs themselves. [Each one] is an assembly of parts much like a jet engine or a car motor, except that it has an aesthetic function rather than a physical function.
It’s push and pull. I work backwards. I think, “What can my tools do eloquently? What can my process do eloquently?” And I use those things as constraints to arrive at designs, so there are certain visual characteristics inherent to that that arise again and again that relate to other genres in a really interesting way; the Futurists, various industrial movements that have come and gone, that repurposed industrial objects. There’s a lot of overlap with old science-fiction movies, a lot of shared visual history.
BB: Watching you at work with the tools in the video—as someone who hasn’t worked with tools much, I have to admit, I was clenching up. Do you ever experience injuries in the process of creating these objects?
CB: Nothing major. I mean, the truth of the matter is that it’s a very dangerous process if you are careless. But if you’re thoughtful and methodical and you put in place processes for being safe, it’s not too hard to keep all your fingers.
Things go wrong. Machines aren’t smart—they only do what you tell them to, and if you accidentally tell them to do the wrong thing, they’ll just tear themselves to pieces. And I’ve done that; I’ve broken tools, and crashed my machines, but I’ve been safe.
It may sound strange, but the best way for me to tell if something’s going wrong in my studio is by hearing. Like, you can hear the machines working; I usually run four or five machines at the same time. A lot of the processes are automated, so I can bounce between five tools and keep them all running, and while I’m doing that I’m just sort of listening, and everything is noisy but it all makes predictable noises. So when something goes wrong I can hear it immediately, and I just go running to see what it is and shut it down.
I’ve cut myself badly. But everyone who works with their hands has a lot of little scars and things like that. Nothing major, though.
BB: Where are some of the places in the world that machine art has taken you, and where has your work traveled?
CB: I don’t travel very much; my work has seen more of the world than I have. [laughs] I haven’t done a lot of museum shows. I had the work shown at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and some of that show traveled to Sydney, Australia. I actually recently did a show in Shenzen, China as part of this architecture and design symposium. My collector base is world-wide, so the work is all over the world, but it’s all in private collections.
I haven’t got a whole lot of traction in the fine art community, in the sense that I don’t think my work fits with the classical fine art conception. There’s a bit of a bias against from sorts of formalism that I’ve run up against, but I’ll argue that there is a place for formalism when appropriating new mediums. Even in photography or painting, formalism plays a very important role, which is to find the technical boundaries of a new medium, and so there are strong elements of formalism instead of high conceptualism in a lot of my projects.
I’ve found it tough to create a narrative that would interest a lot of museums. So I’ve had more luck at showing my work at the National Academy of Sciences and obviously the Baltimore Museum of Industry—places where there’s a little more meat to the subtext of the work as well as the look and aesthetic of the work.
BB: Are there any artists, in any medium, who you’ve drawn inspiration from for your own work?
CB: I can’t say that there’s anyone that I aspire to be like. I’ve always been drawn to art that exhibits a couple of things: some sort of mastery, a sincerity, a playfulness. I like artists who take the work seriously, but not themselves seriously. Artists have different periods; if you look at artists over the course of a career, for artists who become successful, seriousness usually creeps in eventually.
I’m a sculptor who’s learned machine work and turned that into my medium. As an artist machinist, it gets kind of lonely when you don’t have a lot of peers. So I’ve been looking for other machinists, and what I’ve found is a lot of craftspeople and communities—people who make knives, people who modify firearms, people who make things that the art world sometimes is a little bit snobby about. At first I was hesitant to explore those avenues, but you can’t take yourself too seriously; there’s a lot of beauty in what these communities are making. I’ve had a lot of meaningful interactions with people in the maker community.
BB: In some ways, your object names remind me of Autechre song titles, which typically seem to resemble experimental pharmaceuticals—they’re assemblages of letters and numbers which force the listener to deal with the music on its own terms. Why do you give your works names like “NV 614434235524”?
CB: I’m very intentional about not giving any of my objects fictional functions or narratives, because I don’t want them to be science-fiction objects—I want them to be art objects. I don’t even give them recognizable titles. They’re “properly” titled when I start, but then there’s an encryption cipher that I use so that [the ultimate names are] just garbled nonsense. Like I said, your experience of the work is based on your worldview—your frame of reference. Everyone comes at the work from a different angle. I get a lot out of people’s reactions to the work; I find it interesting, and it gives me ideas sometimes.
BB: How did you come to machine artwork? How did it begin for you?
CB: The bulk of my art education was in high school. When I graduated from high school, the thing I was most interested in was sculpture—I had already started experimenting with it, playing around with some rudimentary welding. I was working in metals and had a lot of ideas of what I wanted to pursue, and this was pre-Makerspace, pre-Internet, pre-easy access to fabrication knowledge. So I got it into my head that I needed to go to arts college, to learn technical skills like fabrication and how to work with tools and metal. So I applied to Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and I went there for one year, and my experience was not one of learning technical skills; it was very “art theory” heavy.
BB: Were you looking for something more active?
CB: I was looking for tangible skills. A lot of people go to art school to find themselves, and learn what they want to make; I already had a pretty robust idea of the things that I wanted to pursue. Instead, I was in these theory classes, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the opportunity to make the things I wanted to make—and not learning the things I thought I needed to learn: how to put things together, how to build structures that don’t fall apart. So after a year I was frustrated and a little broke, so I dropped out of art school. There was a little self-reflection after that, asking myself “what is it that I need to really pursue what I’m interested in?” It kept coming back to technical knowledge. So I became obsessed with learning little facets of every technical trade. I started off with welding, then I did some woodwork, then I picked up some rudimentary fabrication and sheet metal tools. Then I sort of stumbled onto machining; I’d found this craft that was different than all the other crafts I’d done. Machine work is this very holistic craft; you can build with machine tools machines to do all of the other trades I’d been exploring, right? You can build woodworking tools. You can build sheet metal tools. You can build other machining tools to work differently. You can make paint brushes to paint. You can make anything. You can make a car. I was looking for the primary color of working in three-dimensional shapes.
BB: At this point, is metal art what you do for a living?
BB: How long have you been able to sustain that, if you’re comfortable saying?
CB: I think it’s been since about 2012. At first I was working a day job, then I’d do about a 30-hour week in the studio—I was doing that for about 11 years. But now I’m self-supporting; I sell enough work now that I can make it work.
BB: Has this been all you’d hoped it would be?
CB: I guess it’s scary at first, until you get used to the uncertainty of not having a regular paycheck. There’s a lot more pressure not just to produce, but to produce good work. When I quit my day job, I’d saved up just enough money to support myself for one year. At the end of the first year, I’d saved just enough money to go a second year; at the end of the second year, I hadn’t sold so much work, but I was fortunate to apply for and receive a few grants, so I was able to cobble something together. The third year, things were a little better; the fourth year, things were a little better. It’s much more stable now, because I’ve figured out how to make it work. It gets easier; I’m less worried now. It’s nice to devote myself to it 100 percent.
BB: Did it seem like it was very sudden or difficult for you to get into this work in terms of tools and space? Does one start out in this vocation by borrowing or renting resources to be able to create?
CB: Space is definitely an issue. I have a very unique working space.
I grew up poor, to say it bluntly, so most of my life has been spent working around those kinds of constraints. So I became sort of accustomed to not having enough space, or not having the right tools. When I found myself learning machine work I quickly learned that I could—rather than buy or rent—build a lot of the tools that I needed. With machine work, some of the tools you need cost half a million dollars, and that’s something beyond the scope of what an artist could afford or reasonably achieve without being someone born into means to begin with.
I know a lot of art students who are dependent on institutions for access to casting equipment or foundry work; I didn’t want that relationship. I wanted to be a self-contained entity, so I wouldn’t feel any constraint put on me by an institution on what I could make.
I work in my basement, out of my home studio, so I’ve always felt like overhead was the devil. I have about a thousand-square foot shop. Every tool I have, I’ve purchased something small or affordable and modified it, or in the case of my more advanced equipment I’ve built those tools myself. I’ve taken those experiences of learning tools and learning how to build tools and folded that experience back into my work. So that’s sort of how the domain knowledge for a lot of the sculptures I make kind of came about. I’m not trying to make art about art; I’m trying to make art about my journey through learning how the physical world is built—the world that we live in, the tangible world. Everything around us has been touched by machine work in some way, whether it’s something like the metal bench we’re sitting on; even bricks are made by tools that have been through that process, and same goes for fabric, rubber, and basically everything.
When I was a kid I was very curious about these things, and how they came to be. I still have that sense of awe about how all this stuff is how it is, and I want to make art about that.
BB: Was there anything in particular, when you were young, that jumped out at you in that way?
CB: [laughs] I don’t know if this is a very good anecdote, but I just remember when I was really young trying to piece out in my head how something as simple as a fork is made. Like, I had a piece of silverware, and I just couldn’t—I was maybe five or six. With the tools I had at my disposal, I couldn’t scratch it, I wasn’t even strong enough to bend it yet. I saw all of these things around me. There were walls in my house, and they seemed like they’d always been there, permanent, right? It’s a really funny thing; I had a job as a contractor for a short period of time, and we were knocking down walls in hospitals and building new ones. That changes your perspective, when you realize that walls can be moved. A lot of people take for granted when they buy a house that the walls are where they are. Once you have that notion dispelled, that really opens things up. A lot of people view metal as this very permanent thing that’s unyielding; it just takes the application of heat or metal to change its state. That’s what hooked me on metalwork.
It’s a highly technical craft; you have to learn a lot about material science. And as I was researching—when I was in high school, I’d think “I’m never gonna use this stuff in real life, why am I learning this stuff, this is completely useless.” And then there I was, struggling to teach myself to build tools, to work out cutting paths, and learning about heat management—and then all of a sudden I find myself reading about thermodynamics, and re-teaching myself trigonometry. That period in my life was a great time for connecting a lot of dots—realizing that everything is connected, and every learning experience had a point. I became very pro-learning. Whenever I feel uninspired, I’ll get myself involved in learning something, anything, new.
One thing that people say to me often is, “How did you learn this? Where did you learn this? You must have gone to school.” A lot of people have this belief that in order for them to learn something, they have to go to school. As an admitted art school dropout, I started by going to the library, checking out books, reading technical manuals, and eventually, as the internet matured, there was more access to forums, manufacturing sites, and places where people share information, and I became a habitual self-learner. So when people ask me “where did you go to school?” it kind of jars me, because information is everywhere. There is no specific class that teaches the things that most people want to do.
“REINVENTION: The Work of Chris Bathgate” is on
display at the Baltimore Museum of Industry through March 11. Learn more about Bathgate’s work at chrisbathgate.com.