Justin Mortimer Discusses His Latest Work, And The Serendipitous Magic Of Painting

Justin Mortimer

British painter Justin Mortimer’s latest works are currently on display at Parafin Gallery, London. The artist’s painting reflects upon a figurative world in a state of 21st century ‘Baconian’ disorder, often pushing the boundaries of figuration and landscape with a slight fetishistic overtone. The artist’s usual necrotic hues give way to the artificial colours of medical garments and smoke bombs found in images from the ongoing Ebola crisis in Africa, and recent political disturbances. Mortimer creates a voyeuristic tableaux from a collage of internet-sourced images, often returning to motifs and re-working them as he strips back the images to reveal a disturbing narrative of suggested violence and physical oppression – but also one of beauty.

Justin Mortimer was kind enough to give Artlyst a tour of his latest exhibition, to discuss the ongoing narrative of his painting, and the direction the artist may take his work in the future.

Artlyst: “So this latest body of work took a year to create?”

Justin Mortimer: “Probably slightly less, because there’s a show on in Nottingham right now that shows the work of the last couple of years, there was a show in Singapore that’s just finished – and we got a few pieces back from that [for this exhibition] – they were both one-man shows. So this is the third one-man show this year – so it’s been quite an interesting time!

The largest work in this show is Der Besucher, which means “The visitors” in German. I started this piece probably in September, and it was the moment that I started to trawl through the internet for all the images that I use – I’ve been painting a lot of images of Balaclavas, dissent, all that kind of thing – when I decided to look at other types of wrapping of form, trying to find scenes of other dystopian events going on around us right now – and I found the Ebola imagery very seductive. It’s the cruelty of being a visual artist: finding beauty in these dreadful situations…

You know the way that I work with all the digital layering and collaging, these figures in Der Besucher, came in right at the end, and they’re strolling through this idealised Swiss landscape, and again there’s the insertion – little punctuations that I like to do – strange machine shapes and abstract shapes. It still retains a certain sense of what it is – while remaining mysterious of course. For me it’s the most cinematic picture here, it’s kind of luxurious in the way that you can read it quite easily – you just walk into that space – it’s available for you, whereas the painting that I made beforehand called Nes Ziona, was painted on top of two older paintings and rubbed down. What is left on the surface is left at the point where I was going to take the picture further – this is something I’ve been doing a few times with paintings – and everything that was left was a response and informed by the scratched out, sanded down previous image. So all this red and these stains, I couldn’t shift them, but I also wanted to work into a nice scratched up surface. It gave the painting a certain openness because I didn’t polish it up. The painting Der Besucher – you can read it very easily, but this one is slightly more obfuscated and edited, opaque, and odd if you like.”

A: “In a sense you can view ‘through’ the painting, layers of process and time?”

JM: “Yeah a lot of painters seem to like this one because you can see that process, you know people respond to that. It’s more risky for me because there was none of that glamour or that clarity which I’ve used in the past. It was an education for me to leave things open, with a bit of air going in, and using less to create a more ambiguous image maybe.

There are a few pictures in the show that reference Ebola, but it’s not Ebola per se, but it’s the way the body is masked in the uniforms. There’s a painting right at the end called Painters which is full of all these smoke bombs which have been taken from tumblr and pinterest, and ends up looking like some weird Hindu festival. In fact a lot of these pictures have ended up with this quasi-religious overtone, which I didn’t want to reference explicitly. I would argue that some of these paintings are a critique on religious theocracies and have shall we say – a binary view of the world that we are aware of at the moment, without actually referencing it. With the Ebola nurses in Der Besucher there’s a certain wimple aspect to the uniform and there’s a pilgrimage aspect to it. You are the first person I’ve spoken to about this where I’ve used the word pilgrimage. It is in there.

I’ve got other paintings in the show, the work Hive that I wanted to make very overtly collaged. It’s kind of a setting but it’s broken up. there are tropes that give you clues where there’s a space there that you’re supposed to understand and then it’s all broken up. In fact I only started to feel good about this work when I say it on the nice white wall of the gallery, because it’s filthy – like my studio floor is filthy – and all the drips and spots that I would normally clean up have been left revealing how the picture was made and there are whole elements that were painted out right at the end, having been worked up for weeks and weeks and just had to be edited – and I like that, I like that dirt and grime.

The catalyst for the picture was when I was collecting imagery from when the cossacks broke up the feminist demonstrations at Sochi, the Pussy Riot protesters. Shocking pictures of these cossacks wading in with their whips and sticks against the band. So there are fragments of that still left in the picture, then there are other pictures of feminist-orientated debate and protest. The yellow hooded figure is someone who was being arrested in Manhattan – the other is South America. There is also an American G.I. that I’ve used before in pictures. So I’m kind of referencing my own work in a strange sort of way, but I don’t mind recycling, in fact I kind of enjoy it. When you nail something down on one picture you sometimes want to do it again in a different way.”

A: “The repetition of form and motifs could be seen as the construction of a personal painterly language?”

JM: “Yeah! almost like grammar, that’s really interesting! – Yes figures cut in half – it almost became an abstract painting – but in a messy way, and there are other pictures that remain in the abstract vein – and I just jump between the two – I didn’t worry too much about just producing abstract work or leaning in that direction, as some of the final works I made are extremely figurative.”

A: “The two works Nes Ziona and Hive seem to have a balance between abstraction, figuration – and landscape, especially with Nes Ziona with the removal of elements of the figure, and also the landscape – but both are still present in part. The form that’s in between is an abstraction, I can see the language of all three present quite equally?”

JM: “That’s a happy accident. Because I couldn’t fake that, you see, I couldn’t paint a picture knowing that I had to erase half of the landscape, it’s just something that happened serendipitously – which of course is the magic of painting – because when I work with such didactic blue plans – the digital prints – I couldn’t have known too much about where to go. But it is still a hook, and catalyst, a riff from which to begin, and through the process of painting it all starts to break apart, and you find your initial journey taking different directions, which is terrific, but also extremely frustrating when you take a risk too far.”

Justin Mortimer: Kult – Parafin Gallery – until 27 June 2015

Listen to part two of Paul Black’s interview with Justin Mortimer here

Words: Justin Mortimer with Paul Black. Photos: courtesy of Parafin Gallery © and P A Black, 2015 Artlyst all rights reserved


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