Art Impressions Winter 1994
Reaching for the Essence by Gordon Bagley
Alan Bateman is forging a reputation as one of Canada's finest realists in the tradition of Colville, Pratt and others. His path is different from his famous father's, whose influence he gratefully acknowledges as he starts out on his artistic journey
Now comes Bateman the younger: son of Robert, Alan by name, introvert by nature, respectfully acknowledging his father's extroverted world of wildlife painting and global ecological crusades with no intention of crowding his way into it.
Considering himself "lucky" by birth — given the boost his famous father's last name afforded him at a key time in his career, and the obvious talent both his father and mother have passed on to him — Alan Bateman, at 29, might be likened to a promising work in progress.
A quiet young man who expresses personal feelings by drawing conclusions from familiar things and then imbuing them with a sense of family and place, Bateman already shows the makings of a canny portrait artist, reaching for the essence of people close to him by associating their character with the objects they use.
Now beginning to surface as a artist whose works have found an audience in both Canada and the United States, Bateman the younger has worked on the concept of object-as-portrait since attending the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in the mid-1980s. Once asked by a teacher to do a self-portrait, he contemplated portraying himself as a well-worn pair of walking shoes.
"It's awkward for me to describe what I paint," Bateman says, "when people ask what I've done, I say a few paintings of my wife, Holly, my father's boat, my grandfather's bedroom, a tin bucket and light on a kitchen wall, but that doesn't really explain it."
In one of Jamie Wyeth's books, the artist describes some of his paintings as 'thing' portraits, Bateman adds. It struck a chord in him on first reading that still resonates.
"I lean in Wyeth's direction, except I call them 'object' portraits," says Bateman, "I tend to centre on something as the portrait central to what seems to be a traditional landscape."
Compelling as the concept is, Bateman acknowledges it also sets up his work for facile and pseudo-Freudian misinterpretation: "I sometimes wonder if people look at my work and say there's nothing alive in them," he explains. "Perhaps some think I'm just reacting against what my father does (nature paintings full of wildlife) but that's not it — there's no big rebellion going on."
In fact, Bateman the younger says he naturally leaned towards wildlife art until age 17 — "I thought no other form of art existed" — learning to draw by studying his father's technique:
"I would copy Dad's wildlife drawings over and over — I remember a painting of a bald eagle with a salmon in its talons and a river in the background — I almost memorized how to draw that one.
"In one sense then," he adds, "it was a privileged education — approximating Dad's stuff; on the other hand, I never actually sat down in a studio class with my father — whatever I picked up occurred simply by painting around him.
"Truthfully," says Bateman, "Dad's not much fun to watch paint. Of course, neither am I. It's a very slow process — the first ten minutes are okay, while things are getting sketched out, but after that it's a very slow process."
Graduating from pencil drawings to full color acrylics was a difficult transition, Bateman recalls, a "light-switch" he turned on with trepidation around age 13. "Until then, I had been very comfortable with pencil," he says, "but I chose a barn owl for my subject and forced myself to paint... it worked out okay."
It also may have amounted to Bateman's first outward step from the protected environment of his father's already established career.
Well on his own road by the time he entered art college, he began to realize why people do art — a personal insight that, in turn, forced him to recognize that his father's passion for wildlife painting was not his own: "at least, not to the same intensity," he says, "and from that, I grudgingly had to admit wildlife art wasn't coming naturally to me."
Having so fledged, Bateman found himself "liberated" to pursue what he wanted to do. Of course, freedom has a cost, with the first big down payment being tagged to the painful undertaking of learning who you really are, and what you are truly trying to do.
To his credit, Bateman, at 29, is wise enough to admit he's still in the process of finding out on both counts: "I don't know exactly where you'd fit me in," he says. "I'm allied to the east coast realists, I guess — somewhat by technique, definitely by subject matter."
Acknowledging his father as foremost among his influences — "how could it be otherwise," he asks — Bateman also reaches, like most young realists, for the works of Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, legendary artists he "likes for the way they think about art as much as for their art itself."
He also admires Edward Hopper for the atmosphere of his paintings and holds east coast realists such as Tom Forestall, Alex Colville, and Christopher and Mary Pratt in high regard.
"At my best," says Bateman, "I'm fifty per cent near them in their mastery and familiarity with the medium."
Then again, young Bateman has another 30 years of work ahead of him.
In his current work, Bateman seems to have arrived at realism by somewhat circuitous routes. At NSCAD, he tried a variety of media, including print making, sculpture and photography, but purposefully avoided the painting studios even though "painters seemed to be the elite group" at the college.
Print making became a passion for him, he says, because it was long on technique — "very materials and process-based" — and short on didacticism: "The instructors let you do your own thing, something I didn't see in the painting studios, which were geared towards a certain type of painting that gave no quarter to realists. In the painting classes, the instructors wanted you to follow their bias."
That "push," says Bateman, was not something he had ever felt from his father, and it served only to pull him back to his first intimations on creativity, garnered by some kind of familial osmosis from his parents, which held that: "Art exists on different levels — while some artists explore and push the boundaries of art for its own sake; others, like myself, do art simply for the need of doing it.
"I'm not more important than my art," says Bateman, "but neither is art more important than me."
Hence, says Bateman, print-making was his route to personal freedom at art school. It was also a medium he had liked since childhood, when he would watch his mother, also an artist, do etchings that he found both exquisite and demanding. "I liked both the effects and the work ethic that goes with print making," he says, "pulling proofs, creating editions, and so on."
At NSCAD, Bateman also took an interest in art education, met his future wife, Holly, while taking courses in that discipline, and contemplated a teaching career after graduation.
"Art education has proved to be a great help to my painting," he says. "The teachers brought materials and process into focus — you talked, thought and created art in a broad context, familiarized yourself with a lot of techniques.
"What I liked best about them was their willingness to help you with your work without trying to make you perform to their definition of art—and they were usually right if they saw you trying to b.s. yourself or someone else with contrived images."
Above all, says Bateman, his teachers taught him about taking responsibility for the entire presentation of a piece — be it the creation of a pedestal for a sculpture or a frame for one's painting. That, in turn, led Bateman into making his own picture frames, an endeavour he still pursues, always in the context of the image he has created.
For four and a half years then, Bateman immersed himself in a variety of print-making techniques — "mono-prints" (one-off efforts involving oils on aluminum transferred to paper), woodblock prints (poplar plywood worked with hand-held carving tools) and lithographs — most of it based on meticulous drawings of recognizable landscapes and portraits. At the same time, he pursued photography and then frame-making, waiting, he says, for the study to become an artistic direction he could use as a painter — a direction that made the mind focus on a central and telling object.
Photography, for instance, helped him work out point of view and the simplicity of images, if not quite the harder-edged realism he saw in an Andrew Wyeth, a certain tincture of Gothic bleakness which he "would still like to add a few drops" to his own painting.
By the last year of art school, Batema recalls, he was coming full circle with his art education. He started painting a lot of acrylics again, sold a few, and opened a small gallery of his own in Halifax. (this is actually wrong, what Alan related in the interview was that he found a Halifax gallery to represent his work) The Christmas before graduation, he sent photos to the now defunct Beckett Gallery in Hamilton, which took some of his paintings and tripled the price he had been asking. "I wasn't really known in Halifax," he recalls, "but I have to admit the Bateman name did help in Ontario — you can't sell bad paintings on name alone, but I found my father's work encouraged people to notice me."
Of course all young dreamers — talented or otherwise — must one day hatch from the protective shell of their school. No exception, Bateman recalls how he and Holly (married by this time) took one look at the statistics and headed for the hills.
"We saw how 90 per cent of art graduates end up waiting on tables or not even doing their art anymore," he recalls, "but I still wanted to give it a year — if the gamble failed, I counted on at least getting a job teaching art, so I could continue to paint for my own enjoyment, if not for a living."
With that as their plan, he and Holly moved from Nova Scotia to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia (where his father lives), and set up house in a little cottage without electricity or running water (it was gravity-fed from a stream and heated on a wood stove), "Feeling confident," says Bateman, "we woke up shivering every morning and I painted like crazy."
As it turns out, Bateman's gamble continues to pay off. lucky to hit the ground running in the big-spending, pre-recessioriary days of the late 1980s, he sold well enough through the Beckett Gallery in his first year to keep at his painting full-time. . In 1990, when Holly landed a job teaching art in Digby, Nova Scotia, the couple moved back to the East Coast, eventually settling into a house in Canning, where Bateman continues to pursue a place in the tradition of east coast realists like the Wyeths.
Art Impressions Winter 1994