Beyond Bacon and Freud Artist Justin Mortimer Interviewed By Paul Black


Justin Mortimer’s paintings reverberate with a fore-knowledge of Baconian flesh and torpor, and that quintessential Freudian cogency and mass that forever changed the idealistic template of the figure in painting into an expression of a post God mortality. For both twentieth century artist’s a delicious glut of adjectives are to be found, as there are when viewing Mortimer’s response to the figure; a psychological mise en scene of necrotic hues, frail bodies, victims of some amoral goya-esque performance. But Mortimer injects a twenty-first century fetishistic tone into his voyeuristic tableaux. The viewer is ever-present as witness to a horror partly obscured as the artist shifts focus, subverts intent, and highlights our fascination with the sordid and suggestive, and in doing so projects a sense of voyeuristic guilt upon the viewer.

Paul Black: Having won the BP portrait award in 1991 – your initial response to the figure was more inclined toward capturing a ‘likeness’ of a sitters identity. The evolution of your work has seen an inclination toward an exploration of the human condition reminiscent of painters such as Francis Bacon, or even the evolution of Lucian Freuds’ response to the human form in relation to an awareness of fragility. A ‘likeness’ being ever-more influenced by a declining flesh?

Justin Mortimer: I was very young when I won that prize; much more a craftsman than intuitive artist. Painting anything realistically was very hard for me so a likeness was an achievement in itself. Content was a matter of fluke. Now being twice as old as I was then, I’m less bothered with technique and far more interested in the story and psychological possibilities of the picture.

PB: The psychological possibilities of the picture are certainly evident in your current practice; the leitmotif running through the work lends itself a very contemporary narrative – an ‘amoral landscape’ in which your figures reside. This post-moral, post-Baconian narrative reminds me of Bacon sifting through war photographs and books on dentistry in an oil stained muse studio; a conceit I grant you, yet you construct images from various sources including the internet – As a writer I’m interested in that romantic parallel – how do you see the early stages of your practice?

JM: Yes I am a great sifter too. Much of what I do is thinking about and looking for the imagery that will be the catalysts for my paintings. These are mostly sourced from the second hand books I keep in the studio- ranging from flower arranging manuals to techniques of orthopaedic surgery through to all the scanned, downloaded and snapped images I have taken and then throwing them together into digital collages on my studio PC. The collages for the largest paintings mostly start as a mashing together of figures and an environment. I am looking for those strange visual crunches, serendipitous clashes that could open up previously unconsidered psychological avenues or could kick life back into a flagging composition. These collages are printed out and continually revised throughout the painting process so that by completion the initial idea is often a long way from the finished piece. This approach to the early stages is mostly successful but I sometimes wonder if I am closing myself off from a more unconscious engagement with the image. Source material is crucial of course- how else would Bacon have made his paintings without photos of wrestling men or dental hygiene? I’d like to know how much time he spent on his research- how much of an archaeologist of the Internet would he have been?

PB: That is an intriguing question! It could be said that your unconscious engagement is in the composition of sifted images? I find the idea of internet archaeology as a part of the process of painting fascinating; the visual ingredients of the collages, once taken out of their original context become ahistorical fragments? Reformatted they become atemporal, the nature of the images become timeless; this appears to be transferred to the final form of the painting, resulting in an ambiguity?

JM: It is certainly that but I would also say it is there, in the necessary application of paint.When you have painted a certain element or area many times – subject to revisions and the experimentation of process – you eventually enter into that space where you are unaware of what you are doing and the voodoo moment of painting is reached. It is that excruciating knife edge between self consciousness and fugue where you know what you want to do, but mostly don’t. Annoyingly this is actually a boon to any good painter. You’ve got to go where it hurts. Do the work, put the hours in then be prepared to ditch it. Ditch all of it.

The original source imagery is always going to be seductive. Look at it; there it is. Game over. The only way I can move forward and make it my own is by redaction. I also need to take the subject out of its context and jam it into a new space- World War One soldiers in a suburban garden, machines and balloons in snow,disused bunkers with surgeons and so forth.

My more successful work has always been when it looks as if something has or is about to happen. This openness to interpretation is interesting to me. I like to find myself unable to describe an image I have cobbled together.

By recontextualising source material you’re no longer snagged on the irritatingly literal but released into a new ambiguous fiction.

PB: The source images are removed from their initial context; making them timeless as decontextualised forms placed in an atemporal space. Each interacts with the other and cancels out any singular reading regarding it’s time period, focusing the narrative onto the collective components of the painting and the interpretation of new meaning. The structure is similar to the poetic in that you are building a sentence, a paragraph, a statement, in the non temporal and abstract? As you say the most successful paintings suggest an event or the moment in-between; a frozen moment, or the most pregnant of pauses? Would you say that this is the aspect of your painting that intentionally builds unease in the viewer?

JM: People say there is a sense of unease in the work. How intentional this is at the outset I’m not that certain. I am always on the look out for that oddness which I talked about earlier but at the same time to describe a scene without seemingly describing it. Sometimes the piece is triggered by the thrill of a strange composition/alignment of content, other times the catalyst could be a found photo of a tree or a medical procedure. I have subjects that I want to make work about but I always try to avoid describing them.

The protagonist/ victim might be hidden by a door or put outside the picture plane. Maybe this unease is due to irritation with my obscuring or filtering out. There is no money shot – if you like, so the viewer is left with an unresolved visual puzzle. Perhaps a certain emptiness here can help the viewer fill the gaps emotionally.

I imagine screen writing is similar; the less you know about the character the more you want to know – my pictures have no voice over.

PB: I don’t see it as an irritation but more as a form of obfuscation. You seem to shift focus? To obscure ordeal or indignity, you appear to glance at an event while almost being unable to process its potentially sordid horror. This results in the heightening of our concentration, as you say; we fill the emotional gaps – the dark recesses of the subconscious complete your tableaux – and in doing so you hand the viewer a projected sense of voyeuristic guilt? We become the voyeur’s of an amoral potential?

JM: I like the idea of the shifted focus. It takes me a long time when making a piece to realise what it is I am actually painting. Often I find that the story only starts to emerge after working many weeks on a single piece, editing out whatever it was that took me so long and then squeezing the glimpsed figure around the side, behind or amongst what I first thought were the throw away areas of the painting. This is an interesting point in the process because I then find myself with an unassembled composition and an odd focal stress or imbalance that I use as the key to the finished piece.

I am a figurative painter but have I got to the piece? I often wonder this. Maybe this is why objects such as balloons and plastic sacks and cabling have been appearing recently. Presumably they are a proxy body or metaphoric body for me. Whatever they are the viewer has to straddle these things to find or more probably not find the subject and fill in the gaps. At the moment I continue to make work about perverse or threatening situations but without being too explicit. Yes, I think the voyeuristic potential here is crucial. Isn’t it (voyeurism) so much more interesting than looking? My subjects aren’t presented, you have to find them. You are not even invited- you have to intrude.
PB: You set the viewer adrift as a wanderer in a psychological mise en scene; in some respects of their own making? – turning corners of dank corridors and gazing through glass at moments of captured immoral performances. But alluded to by an oblique and disturbed gaze; As you glance at an event while almost unable to process the sordid malaise and project that position onto the viewer; The artist has not entirely set the scene? – I suppose that one of the ideas around a stolen moment of voyeurism; is being presented with a greater truth?

 JM: I believe most people bring what they want to the picture. Of course they can be guided by various visual sign posts but for me it’s the peculiar that the viewer brings that is of interest. If there’s any aberrant behaviour to be interpreted is it not that that’s externalised by the viewers ? I think that you may be right in that I present an ambiguous opaque scene or arena that to be honest is always going to be limited by the restrictions of my imagination and hope that the viewer will charge it with their own projected pychologies.

PB: It is true that the viewer will ‘charge’ the ambiguous with subjective meaning, but they are still guided in a direction? Your images are covetous; they ask the viewer to be complicit with the image presented, or ‘suggested’ – often an allusion to an ‘amorality’ or potentially disturbing event – Do you think that your works are exemplifiers of our fascination with degradation?

JM: I do know that if you scratch the surface of us all you’ll find a huge appetite for violence, cruelty, for the subversive and the deviant. Our dark, innate impulse for brutalism is a preoccupation that continually feeds my work.

JG Ballard got it right when he said, “Human beings are not the sane, sensible creatures that we imagine we are. You only have to turn off all the water supply in England and three days later people would be killing each other around the Serpentine”

I like that mixture of English bourgeois domesticity burst apart to reveal our violence- an ancestral cruelty that is so close to the surface.

Perhaps the viewer taps into the familiar when looking at my pictures.

 PB: Goya’s Casa De Locos is replete with figures that are marginalised and rejected, which is reflected in their grotesque and pitiable behaviour.  The subjective moral certainties of his The Disasters of War – the guilt of the victim in war through the authority of the victor – are lost to a moral ambiguity. The Asylum paintings; much in the same way as the artist’s Black Paintings, were a manifestation of fear.

The fear of a country losing its way – in this instance politically, yet the idea is the same; as you say the bourgeois breaks down into ancestral cruelty – and very importantly the fears of an artist losing his health and sanity.

Goya’s asylum figures – more than any of his others – reflect the terror of not being able to control one’s physical self or destiny; they are subject to the whim of others or of their own insanity. Would you say that your works also reflect that particular Goya-esque fear of lost control?

JM: I would say yes. Certainly the disappointment of the failing body and the internalised locked-in terror that entails; the participants in whatever unfolding non-drama in my pictures are most likely a projection of that interior anxiety.

For what it’s worth, my own personal experiences of depression and having being born with a physical anomaly have stained most subjects I tackle. I suppose it’s inevitable that a shadow of these experiences is a constant murmur throughout my work and yes, feed my obsessions with medicalised imagery, war and loss of control.

The early 19th century Spanish asylum was a dustbin for society. It was also a place where people came to be entertained by the lunatics twisting and juddering to their own singular torments. Asylum is the perfect visualisation for Goya, mentally and physically tortured by an unknown illness and trapped in a country being ripped apart by war. For me his asylum is a voyeuristic arena exorcising societies angst – just as the bullring purges the spectator’s dread of their own deaths.

PB: – And here we return to the exploitation of the figure. In much the same way as Goya’s juddering lunatics were in reality entertainment for the Spanish masses; we see a reflection of that idea in your works. The narrative composition of your paintings reflect the presence of a furtive third party. The existence of a work of art is determined by a viewer as part of its equation. Within this you construct a visual narrative that exemplifies the triad between artist – work – and viewer. The image suggests the existence of a voyeuristic third party as an internal part of the narrative of the painting itself, as well as the essential presence of a viewer in the equation of artist, art object, and viewer – this would, if intentional, give the painting a quiet self awareness, and a slight conceptual lean?

JM: It’s not unusual for me to suggest that a viewer is participating in the narrative. Sometimes I have even included their shadow. To passively watch, to stand aside, to let happen- this is interesting to me. There is the guilt and impotence.

To speak of the painting as having a self awareness suggests it inhabits its own discreet space, somehow separate, aloof even.

A painting takes on its ‘ownness’ when the artist no longer has full control. The work has its own volition, slipping outside of the artist’s expectations into a non habitual place. Here the unsettling crunch and crackle of unknown shapes, the bizarre push and shove of odd misalignments amount to a certain voodoo that puts a painting outside the perimeter of expectations into its own, separate dimension.

Paul Black is an artist and art journalist, living and working in the UK.
Justin Mortimer is one of the UK’s leading figurative painters. He won the prestigious BP Portrait Award in 1991 © Artlyst 2013 Photo: Courtesy Of the Artist


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