Beginning in his early twenties, Gil Batle spent two decades in and out of five California prisons, mostly for fraud and forgery of documents from IDs to checks and credit cards. Now 53 years old, he lives on a small and quiet island in the Philippines, where for the past two years he has been recording his memories of tough prison life on delicate ostrich eggshells. Painstakingly etched, his detailed panels so far spill across 19 eggs that are now on view at Ricco Maresca Gallery in the exhibition Hatched in Prison: The Art of Gil Batle. Each shell, displayed in a bell jar, is devoted to a unique aspect of his incarceration — the daily routines he experienced, the social interactions he observed, and more; together, they narrate a lifestyle of isolation and brutality, memorializing these personal experiences of imprisonment through an object that stands as the very nucleus of life.
The ostrich egg became Batle’s medium by chance when a friend gifted him one that he decided to transform into his canvas. Batle drew daily while in prison — mostly portraits of inmates’ family members, illustrations for greeting cards, and tattoo patterns, all in exchange for drawing supplies, commissary food, tobacco, and other indulgences. Sometimes, with homemade motorized needles and ink, he also actually tattooed his fellow prisoners — a skill that evidently translated seamlessly over to his eggshell renderings, which he completed with a high-speed drill and then touched up with small knives and scalpels.
These scenes cover the entirety of each nearly seven-inch-tall, five-inch-wide egg; while the gallery provides magnifying glasses to encourage close scrutiny, Batle’s bas-relief lines are so fine that the visual aids actually aren’t necessary. His densely packed surfaces depict quotidian activities from letter-writing to tending the garden, but they also focus on violent prison riots between different gangs or officers and inmates; graphic stabbings executed with shanks; guards conducting debasing body cavity searches. Men with heads of wild beasts including hyenas, mandrills, and wide-eyed dogs also suggest the barbaric nature of the prison system; scenes of other predatory creatures, from vultures to scorpions, fill the remaining areas of the eggs like decorative patterns and friezes.
Other repeating forms consist of imagery rooted in the vocabulary of imprisonment, from the crisscrossing lines of a chain-link fence to loops of barbed wire; from the layered barrels of surveillance cameras to the endless rings of chains. The cutouts Batle carved into many of the shells divide surfaces into quadrants and different frames, making the eggs look like elaborate, decorative objects until one draws closer and the grim tableaux come into focus.
Batle also dedicates some of these frames to portraits of characters he met, knew, or observed from afar, some of whom are still serving time. Adorning the edges of each frame is a string of descriptors summarizing not only the misdeeds and sentences of the men depicted, but at times also peculiar characteristics or specific roles in the prison that give them depth and individuality. “Maugu,” for instance, a heavy-set man who cradles a ukulele, is surrounded by the phrases “iIllegal firearms dealer” and “drug trafficking,” but also “prison choir member.” We learn that the muscular “Mosco” is in jail for 60 years with no parole for “reckless arson and extorsion” — but he’s also, as Batle playfully put it, “sensitive to stares.” And “Mr. Peabody,” a bespectacled inmate Batle saw at Donavan State Prison playing chess, is clearly brilliant: he’s an “elite hacker” who, charged for “500 counts of I.D. theft,” was “convicted under an alias.”
Batle himself rarely appears on his eggs. “Fraud” (2015) is one outlier that features him carrying out his illicit activities and tattooing people in prison. He depicts himself as a headless figure, choosing instead to carve chameleons and masks in the bordering registers to represent what he felt was an ever-changing self-identity. The exhibition features an accompanying booklet filled with descriptions of the works penned by Batle, left in their original, unedited states, which give the corresponding visuals greater weight.
“I had so many identities that I almost forgot who I was,” Batle writes about “Fraud,” recounting losing his job and family as well as succumbing to heavy drug use. “I was going through a crazy identity crisis.”
Perhaps his most personal, “Abscond: Letters from Jonathan” (2015), is another egg on which the artist appears and where he visualizes his difficult relationship with his son Jonathan. One panel shows the moment law enforcers — depicted as safari hunters — arrived at Batle’s door to arrest him, with his son standing beside him, clutching him; the next panel reveals Batle behind bars, reading a letter from Jonathan. Batle’s expression is hidden as he turns away from the viewer, but such moments, enclosed by chains and the steel ring of a handcuff, speak volumes about the emotional hardships with which incarcerated individuals grapple. This tension lingers throughout the show — rendered on ornately carved eggs, the brutal suddenly becomes beautiful and the pain incredibly fragile and precious. Kept under bell jars, they are like decorative displays that are there for us to examine, while the narratives they depict feel distant and impermeable to change.