IMTS Insider

Art or part?

Category: IMTS Network Dec 16, 2019

By IMTS Team Member Kathy K. Webster, Exhibitions Content Manager – Correspondence at AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology, which owns and operates IMTS - The International Manufacturing Technology Show

Sleek, futuristic and extraterrestrial are some of the words people use to describe the metal sculpture by Baltimore Artist Chris Bathgate.

Modern art, rocket part, or cyborg gadget?

It’s easy for gallery visitors to admire the beauty and craftsmanship of his sculpture, but Bathgate hopes viewers wrestle with the tensions his pieces evoke: aesthetic vs. utility, form vs. function, industrial vs. handmade, and intricate vs. elegant.

Struck by the beauty of machined parts and the power of metal-cutting machines, Chris explores modern machine work as a fine art craft. Each piece is often made up of dozens of finely machined parts, including bolts, screws, and fasteners.

Machined Metal Sculpture 125

Computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software allow Bathgate to design and produce the parts for his pieces. He even makes artful drawings from his designs. “During the development of a sculpture, the drawing functions as a platform for refining the visual forms within the work and as a digital reference to calculate machining tolerances and plan logistics for the actual fabrication of the piece,” says Bathgate.

“The drawings bridge the pure conception of the sculpture with the engineering and execution of the design,” says Bathgate. They illustrate the relationship between the impossible ideal and the workmanship that created the finished object.”

The artist uses a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine—a high-tech metal-cutting machine—to create sculpture that looks both mechanical and organic, as if it might come to life or move if touched in just the right place.

Indeed, his pieces can be handled, and many do open. Often the viewer may intuitively find the right way to squeeze or push to release a lid or find an enclosure. Chris refers to his pieces that open as “vessels.”

Chris is the rare self-taught CNC machinist. CNCs are complex machines requiring a specific skill set that can take two to four years to gain competency. CNCs are found in advanced manufacturing facilities around the world and used to carve highly precise parts for cars, trucks, airplanes, and rockets.

In most cases, a programmer uses software to design the part and feeds the code into the machine. A machinist inserts the raw material, usually a metal, into the machine and starts the program to make the part. CNCs range in size and price. Some are as small as a desktop printer and cost a few hundred dollars. Others are as large as freight containers and cost close to a million dollars.

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And if you’re industrious, committed to creating authentic art, and have a tight budget, then you build your own CNC machine. Chris referenced books from the library, documents from the Internet, salvaged metal, and repurposed equipment to build the CNC that shapes the parts for his sculpture.

“Process lies at the heart of my practice, and it serves as the primary catalyst for my ideas. I evaluate my sculptures for form and visual composition in a continuous cycle of ideation, problem solving, fabrication, analysis, and revision, similar to systems engineering,” says Bathgate. “I carefully compose technical diagrams so that the whole may be deconstructed into its elements.”

See Bathgate’s work at or in person beginning in January 2020 at the National Museum of Industrial History, a Smithsonian affiliate museum in Bethlehem, Penn. Bathgate has exhibited sculpture in a number of mid-Atlantic galleries and has published his artwork in a book entitled, Chris Bathgate: The Machinist Sculptor.

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