Tacit Contemporary Art, Thornbury 2000

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Visual knowledge unspoken and recognised is ‘embedded’ in cultural portrayals of the male body.

Bateson has approached the area of masculinity from multiple directions. The four series contain no prescribed conclusions about the construction of masculinity and yet emit a certain sense of heroic flamboyance. The mortar in the construction of the images leads to the demolition and subsequent archaeology of figurative masculinity, and centre on a singular man, the artist himself.

The Body images may be read as nebulous dreamlike landscapes until the specific context of Bateson’s Self images brings the dreamscape into focus. Contrasting with this are two series about the artefacts of masculinity, the ubiquitous and ever present symbol in both high and low terms -the tool. Bateson’s Tool and Body drill images engage the artist-craftsman, the sensitive "aesthetic man", in dialogue with the most physical and aggressive of forces – the "tool man".

Bateson reveals ‘embedded’ texture on the body and the tool. The series may be read as stabilising the existence of each other by building, fixing and nailing them firmly together, conversely, the various vantage points serve to form an impression of deeper ‘embedded’ layering into the underlying shadowy regions patterning the torso of the only actual man portrayed, the artist himself. The images have a feel of textural soft and hard focus, lichen over stone in the cooler grey tones gives way to heat and physicality as ochres burst through like embers into flame.
Bateson’s figurative renaissance in this show appraises self image. Combined with the familiar signs of overlaid texture seen in Bateson’s Palimpsest series, he has investigated body images that trace evocative surface covering and exposure. Wallpaper motifs decorate the fabric of skin, sensitively wrapping the body as though it were a canvas. Added to the concerns of his earlier formalist paintings, the integral nature of the subject matter is apparent. Reminiscent of antique sculpture, the silent weight of the body indicates solidity reinforced by a palette of earthy colour. This figurative series references the Renaissance sculptural tradition and it is with enthusiasm that Bateson speaks about the maquette made prior to Michelangelo’s monumental David.

The Body drill images are dreamlike landscapes. They recall Bateson’s earlier Lake Mungo paintings, the drill bits similar to displaced figures in the landscape. They also operate as a masculine narrative and poke irreverent fun as phallic objects. Bateson’s work calls to mind countless battles over just what it is to be a man. It seems that there is pressure to provide a seemingly status quo projection, an image to the world constructing an identity based around acceptable notions of masculinity. Whether residing in the body beautiful or split into an area of intellectual prowess, the symbolic subject negotiates these issues. Symptomatic of this process, building blocks of solidity residing in the male body splinter off into fragmented tools.

The iconic Tool series may easily be read as variations on the phallus in space. These digital images are the power tools used for carpentry and building. In speaking about the role of father and grandfather, Bateson sees a suspension of judgement in what constitutes masculinity, labelled craftsmanship, given a neutralised arena of decorating a special toy for a child or grandchild. As a father Bateson has designed delicate Edwardian doll’s houses for his daughters. He expresses his observation that given the absence of a child, effeminate activities associated with daintiness may be judged as unsettling the notions of masculinity that are strongly ‘embedded’. With a mauve hammer, is the artist-creator, the hard-edged man, the controller and patriarch careful to hide decorative lacework of wallpaper patterning if not to be submerged into a powerless position…Is the only circular blade tool symbolic of a masculine power tool or a feminine power tool?

Sharon Sutcliffe

City of Glen Eira Gallery 2001

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Horsham Regional Gallery 2004

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em’bedded is about seeing and discovering a self image within the complex vision and reality of being masculine. Timothy Bateson works through the visual fascination of his body beautiful, creating works with an astounding sense of slipping between states - of shifting forms em’bedded with a glossy patterned surface. These patterns operate as a curtain to a window view and like matter floating on the surface of a pool, streaking and obscuring the Narcissus illusion.

Bateson presents works that are compellingly beautiful, erotic and very conscious of the gazes that they are subject to. There is the artist’s gaze, facing squarely his own image to re-address self, being both proud and unsettled by what is there. There is the camera’s gaze, the implement of narcissistic artistic production that acts as conspirator, tool and audience for an arousing performance. Finally, there is the anticipated gaze of the viewer, the ‘every other’ that will touch these bodies with eyes and probe with the inner vision of the mind to search for the meanings layered within. It is questionable which gaze is more confronting -the one that visually devours in scopophilic pleasure or the one that tries to unveil (strip) the allusions to glimpse the artist laid bare beneath.
Constantly searching for beauty through a history of working the image, Bateson continues to investigate the process of layering successive images, peeling back and then laying down another pattern in consecutive veils of mark. The earlier works from his Palimpsest series utilised motifs from the designs of Charles Rennie MacIntosh and William Morris: in em’bedded they are given a new aesthetic context. In a palimpsest, marks on the surface are erased and written over, except that the marks from below show through as pressed pencil bruises on a paper’s surface, or like etched scribble lines upon a wall. Linking to William Morris wallpapers torn off and saved, the Palimpsest works referenced the experiences of renovating – removing and stripping floor coverings, wall papers and eons of layered coloured paint to find a glimpse of another pattern, a testament to a past moment. The idea of renovation links appropriately to Bateson’s need to combine his image history with new ideas, constantly reworking in search of a quintessential aesthetic surface.

In em’bedded, the artist’s form is pressed deep into the decorative patterns just as a die for antique embossed tin pushes the sheet with great force around its unyielding impression. In Bateson’s work, the figure shifts, hovering beneath the surface, pushing out from the pattern in low relief. The pattern caresses like liquid and wraps like embalming cloths. What would happen to a body pressed and wrapped around a mould set with a pattern like this? Visceral fluids and Rorshach bleeds come to mind. The prints are beautiful and compelling, yet the references are to surfaces treated at once with violence and loving reverence - a disturbing duality. These visual layers are pressed into the very surface of the artist’s skin. The bruises rise deep purple, brown like healing blood, or as ghastly blanched skin with the blue tracery of veins.
The intricacies of the floral wallpapers become the lacework of capillaries just below the surface of the skin – an internal tattoo network. The patterns appear also reminiscent of the raised or flaking skin of certain dermatological conditions. Similarly the undercurrent of violence, referenced through extreme gesture, surface scarring and bloodied hues, could also be read as an internal bruising of self made manifest and longing/waiting to heal. The slippage apparent in the visual dimensionality becomes the slippage of thought between levels of awareness.

A large volume of the em’bedded photographs are torsos only, anonymous and headless. As a view without a head they therefore read as being about corporality, without the higher power of reason associated with the cerebral. In this abrupt amputation they are images of a passion for the body as an object of beauty, but they also call to mind the strange cut body forms of the Surrealist movement - focusing as they did on lust and displacement. Bateson’s figures could be viewed as either a search for self, as responses to a male muse, or as the recognition of an irreverent alter-ego in a dance of revelry in front of the camera’s eye. But what is there to deduce from the massively oversized painted heads, staring directly within a scale of enormity associated with giants and gods? The exaggeration of the scale certainly has a lineage to his large abstract images about paint, and so fulfills a need to integrate aspects of palimpsest. The large paintings are plainly and simply striking as heads. The longing in these huge eyes is particularly poignant behind their painterly screen, as the melancholy undercurrent of other images becomes literally larger and more noticeable. Some of the portraits gaze intently, meeting the imagined eyes of the mirror double – in that intense close scrutiny of the face in the glass until it becomes unfamiliar and unsettling. The French word for mirror, related to the English words ‘glass’ and glaze, is ‘la glace’ – which means a polished surface or glossy sugar candied fruit 1. The latter association is amusing. Could this be the male body in a toffee coating? Or are they more like insects in amber, perfectly captured and preserved, metamorphosed from liquid sap to shiny rich stone through pressure and eons of time?

The mythological legend of the visually homo-erotic youth Narcissus is of particular relevance here, as a story of fascination and admiration. Known for his beauty, Narcissus rejected many suitors (male and female) including the nymph, Echo. Already punished by the gods for ‘too many words’ she was reduced to being able to repeat only the last few words of another. Echo tried in vain to win the object of her desire, but Narcissus could only hear his own words in repetition - a verbal mirroring. Rejected, she spent the rest of her life pining away for love, until only her voice remained. Narcissus was unaware (and disinterested) in her fate, but ‘justice’ was done when, as a punishment for his lack of awareness, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection. He could not have that which he loved and pined away to leave nothing but the exquisite Narcissus lily that still nods its head towards the water. In psychoanalytic terms, the main implications of the Narcissus story are in the confusion of the self image with that of the desired – the other.
Like Narcissus’s reaching embrace, Bateson’s touch causes ripples on the visual field/water surface, leaving a tantalising view of flesh as we wait in vain for the surface to still. His visual fascination, however, relates more to a process of turning and facing the image of self squarely in order to deal with it, rather than falling in love. Learning to appreciate the specifics of self in context with the many ‘standards’ pushed by the media, is the challenge of either gender in current culture. For Bateson, several changes experienced in the past few years have led to a desire to readdress the specific body in a theoretical and visual context. The entrancement of self vision for poor Narcissus was so encompassing that he could not hear or see anything else and he wasted away (deaf to the haunting echo of an ‘other’ who loved him). Let us hope that Bateson is content to dally with the male muse long enough for brilliant inspiration but without the trauma brought on by self obsession.

Bateson’s work is intended to be read as a body of related works in the tradition of modernist abstraction. Working in series, the images take on a flux and movement as subtle changes lead on from one to the next. Again, the highlight is on difference within a group as opposed to a singular work standing alone. In this way the work is less about solitary grandeur and more about fitting and belonging within a wider pattern. And while his patterns may appear as a random vandalism of the image surface, they are in fact fragments selected with the utmost care and are highly ordered. These patterns were taken from surfaces originally embossed through the intaglio print process and now this embossing is mimicked digitally. Sometimes the shuddering pattern itself appears more three-dimensional than the human form beneath, for the motifs possess a shadow. Bateson insists upon placing demands on the medium, to make it do what he wants it to do rather than what that medium is known for. He has desired for years to find marks that confound the chosen medium to appear like another process.

This visual trickery causes a slippage between media, producing the illusion of subtle relief – a quality not often found in digital work. From his printmaking background, working either with monotones or with inks that were tinged with colour, many tonal values achieve extra depth from the actual depth in the plate embossing – the shadow of a reverse relief. This led Bateson to employ a reduced palette for his drawings and paintings to suit. This limited tonal range has continued as one of the visual process structures that he likes to work with. Bateson has always been interested in the interplay of low contrasts and how spatial relationships shift and change due to the most minute differences. The subtle and easily overlooked is made striking. Within a low contrast index, shifts in textures become more distinct, with a feeling of deep embossing. An impasto motif is raised above the rest of the support surface, or is it sunk beneath - or does it matter, as the surface slips to-and-fro? Within this harmonious and even homogenous field, the tones rise and fall like the male singers of a Gregorian chant in a long lilting melody line.

The em’bedded images are images of the body of a man, a body that is masculine but is special instead of archetype, a body that is attractive and attracted. They contain undercurrents of sadness, of the violence of extreme gesture and violated surface, but mostly they contain sensuous desire-filled looking. They address looking at and evaluating a shifting self and of looking at shifting and changing concepts of masculinity. Provoked by a questioning urge to gaze upon the self as seen by another, Bateson creates images of great sensitivity, longing and engagement.

Kerrilee Ninnis