“I think objects are more interesting if you can’t solve them, if you don’t know what they are,” said Baltimore artist Chris Bathgate, whose work is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Industry through March 2018.
The Baltimore Museum of Industry is a pantheon of manufacturing history. Located in a 19th-century oyster cannery along the harbor, one room contains a retro bakery case, with red and white tile on the walls, an homage to the city’s various food brands.
Today, in the middle of the room, behind a Plexiglas display case, is an object that looks as if it were transported from the future. A twisted metal column that looks like a giant chrome drill, it challenges viewers to ask what’s it used for, like the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“As a species we’ve been interacting with things that are manufactured for a really long time,” said Chris Bathgate, 37, the sculptor behind this strange gizmo. “We know how a coffee maker works without reading the manual. We know how to open every car door because we have been sort of trained to do that.”
Bathgate’s work looks like it should have a purpose — maybe it’s a high-tech drill for a nuclear thingamabob? Or at least, it must be some sort of next-gen back massager? Yet the finished pieces are insistently, determinedly useless.
“And so that’s sort of a psychological play,” he said. “There’s this implied functionality, but the work never quite becomes anything,” he said. Meticulous blueprint drawings illustrate the careful construction of each piece; Bathgate designs and builds not only his sculptures, but the tools and equipment to make the sculptures.
For the next year, the Baltimore Museum of Industry will host an exhibition of Bathgate’s work — shiny, futuristic egg-looking things, metallic shells and items that evoke “Transformers” — all without purpose, all featuring esoteric, serial-number names meant to encrypt the artist’s original intention.
“I didn’t want to influence” how people perceived the art, said Bathgate.
While there is one room devoted to his sculptures, a few of the pieces will be featured alongside ancient production equipment — a meditation on the future role of manufacturing in America, while so much of the museum looks back at the past.
“This was such a natural marriage of industry and art,” said Anita Kassof, the museum’s executive director. “Plus his work is just beautiful.”
Bathgate grew up in Middle River and attended Carver Center for Arts and Technology. Lee Boot, a former film teacher at the school, said Bathgate’s high school-era sculpture showed the roots of what it would become. The work was “super high-tech, almost science fiction, there’s a little bit of steam punk in there,” said Boot.
After graduating, Bathgate attended the Maryland Institute College of Art for one year — though it didn’t work out.
“I was brimming with ideas of things I wanted to make,” he said. At MICA, “there was no class on how to design a piece that wouldn’t fall apart. There was no basic woodworking.”
He dropped out his second year, worked on a car and wondered what he should do with his life. “I figured out that I still wanted to make art,” he said. “I started in a little shed in the backyard.” He learned the basics of welding and machining on his own, while working for a contractor as a day job. “I advocate for having a boring day job,” he said.
“In a way, he’s the ultimate DIY artist,” said Boot, referring to Bathgate’s self-taught approach to his work. And yet, unlike much of what’s considered outsider art, Bathgate’s work doesn’t look homemade. “It’s completely sophisticated, hyper-modern, again with a little retro.”
Bathgate is committed to keeping his art separate from the practical world. “I can’t bring myself to make anything useful,” he said. “I get asked to make a lot of furniture. I get asked to make lamps and tables and things like that,” but he almost always says no.
“I think objects are more interesting if you can’t solve them, if you don’t know what they are.”