San Quentin West Block II
6 1/2 x 5 x 5 in. (16.5 x 12.7 x 12.7 cm)
Medium and Support:
Ostrich egg shell
Maurice R. and Maxine B. Forman Fund
Location: Currently on view
Born and raised in San Francisco to Filipino parents, the artist Gil Batle spent over 20 years in and out of California prisons for fraud and forgery. During this time he used his self-taught skills as an artist—the same ones that got him convicted for forging IDs and traveler’s checks—as a commodity, earning the respect of his fellow inmates by drawing their family portraits, tattoo designs, and greeting cards.
After serving his time, Batle moved to a small island in the Philippines in 2008 and began to depict his life behind bars in searing detail on the surface of ostrich eggs. The artist begins by drawing with a pencil on the surface of the egg, and sculpts the minute detail of his scenes using a high-speed dental drill. The creative impulse that has threaded throughout Batle’s life has now found outlet in these otherworldly eggs covered with narratives of institutionalized gang violence and racially segregated cellblocks.
Eggs are a part of the creation myths of nearly all cultures throughout time and have many powerful connections to the history of art. The ostrich egg, in particular, has been used as a durable carving medium for over 60,000 years (as recently discovered in caves in South Africa). In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, they were used to make elaborate drinking cups and were sometimes hung in chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
left: 51/50 Dreams, 2015
Batle: 51/50 is a police code for “crazy person on the loose” 51/50 is also a term inmates use to label the mentally ill convicts that have been medically cleared to roam in the general population in prison… They are unpredictable, at times acting with odd behaviors and keep to themselves and are better off left alone… It’s pretty eerie to see one of these guys sleeping… I carved what I imagined what these guys dream about.
right: San Quentin West Block II, 2017
Batle: San Quentin’s West Block is the closest thing to Hell that I can imagine. It holds more than 700 inmates. The noise level was as loud as a football stadium during a touchdown. There is no way to describe this place. My first term in prison, I was in awe walking past each cell. Each cell had its own character. From daily quiet living in one cell to violent arguing or fighting in the next. I tried to capture that place in this egg. Not even close.
[Gallery label text, Dec 2019]