Justin Mortimer: Selected Works 2002-2008
by David Trigg
(Paintings discussed are illustrated at end of the page - scroll down)
Justin Mortimer's darkly enigmatic paintings are infused with an unsettling disquietude. His heavily worked, technically adroit canvases depict sinister and foreboding landscapes, often populated by fragmented figures and lurking, truncated body parts. These ambiguous and eccentric narratives embody potent psychological states, addressing issues of alienation, ontological solitude and the fragility of the human body. Locations that have borne witness to conflict, or moments of extreme human vulnerability are Mortimer's primary inspiration; images of battle sites, derelict wastelands, military graveyards and other places of heightened emotion provide the starting points from which his extraordinary paintings evolve.
However, before pigment touches canvas, each work is prefaced by a digital collage – a working drawing composed in Photoshop, built from the artist's extensive archive of imagery. Holiday snaps, photographs torn from magazines, found medical photographs and internet-scavenged images all find their way into these primary montages, which are created rapidly and spontaneously. Yet Mortimer has no interest in critiquing the role of digital imaging in the construction of private and public memory, rather the procedure is a pragmatic shorthand intended to expedite the creative process. These digital sketches are then transposed to the canvas, after which the physical painting process takes over until, returning to his computer, more collages are created to aid the advancing composition. As the canvas is repeatedly overpainted and redrafted, this to-ing and fro-ing between digital and analogue can often result in up to fifteen collages being created for a single painting. It's an unconventional approach, yet draws out unanticipated visual collisions that amplify Mortimer's underlying themes and emotive content.
Mortimer's idiosyncratic working methods often result in deliberately off-kilter and fractured compositions. Take for example Hill Walker, 2002, in which a lone, flaccid looking figure seen from behind teeters awkwardly, high above an alpine town in Tyrol, Austria. Tyrol may be a popular tourist destination but its natural beauty harbours a dark, fascist past redolent with the horrors of eugenics and Nazi experimentation – a tension that Mortimer was keen to explore. Like Yves Klein leaping into the void, the naked, grey character in Mortimer's painting – taken from the artist's collection of medical photographs – hangs motionless, mid-fall, ostensibly about to plunge into the valley below. What are we witnessing here? Is this the tragic demise of an unwitting sleepwalker? A calculated suicidal action? Or perhaps something more sinister? Painted with a subtle, muted palette of greys and greens, it's a peculiarly cadaverous image defying any determinate interpretation.
A similar ambiguousness can be found in Lake, 2003. Riffing on the visual language of 19th century Romantic painters, Mortimer presents a nebulous lakeside scene surrounded by rolling hills shrouded in mist. Another curious female nude, again seen from behind, is doubled over on the shore. Whether she is about to dive into the freezing cold waters, or simply stumbling gawkily towards the water's edge is uncertain. A sober combination of the equivocal and the unsettling, Mortimer's colossal canvas radically subverts the popular clichéd image of a bathing nude epitomized by works such as Paul Chabas's kitschy 1912 painting September Morn.
Mortimer's own body appears in Beach, 2004 – albeit just one lone foot and shin. Like a Robert Gober wax leg minus the levity, the truncated limb lies protruding inexplicably from the side of a ramshackle, corrugated iron hut. Set in an undefined, snow-covered landscape and painted with an austere grisaille palette, it's a bleak and disheveled scene filled with mystery. The hut itself has been partially painted black, perhaps to denote an act of negation, or a creeping psychological darkness. Either way, your eye can't help but be drawn back to that inscrutable leg.
More ostensibly abandoned body parts appear in the hallucinatory Chalet, 2004. Slumped under the porch of a garden shed lies what appears to be a figure; a forearm is clearly visible, though the rest of the body is concealed, possibly by a tarpaulin, as if a homeless person had bedded down here for the night. But looking closer you notice that the body is barely there at all, beguilingly melding into the canvas's heavily worked surface where portions of underpainting have been left exposed. Chalet thus underscores the fact that Mortimer's works do not represent literal dismemberments, rather these truncations serve to intensify a sense of disconnectedness and anxious tension between the body and its immediate environment.
This evanescing of the human form is a strategy that becomes even more salient in subsequent works, most notably in the frenetic surface of Dieu Sauve La France, 2006. Painted with large brushes and thick, viscous paint, a ghostly, kneeling leg is barely palpable against the near-abstract description of a graffitied concrete hut, which appears to be slipping into an abyss. Indeed, Mortimer's focus on abandoned structures such as World War II pillboxes is another, equally salient trait. Drawn to their physicality and sculptural presence, Mortimer has made several works featuring these decaying buildings. Derived from photographs taken while holidaying in France, Mortimer's paintings of German pillboxes depict stark concrete edifices, many of which are overgrown by weeds or covered in lichen. Dotted all over Normandy's coastline, these architectural anomalies are emotionally charged vestiges of an erstwhile conflict, often still bearing the traces of those who once fought there. The tilting cuboid pillbox in Sous le Bunker la Plage, 2006, is tightly cropped, filling the majority of the large canvas. Its intimidating, cave-like presence evokes a sense of trepidation. Another leg appears at the painting's edge, though its presence here seems somehow less incongruous than in other works. Ambiguously echoing the site's past, this isolated limb suggests gunned-down soldiers as much as it does picnicking holidaymakers.
More pillboxes appear in Beach Fatigue, 2007, and Central Casting, 2007, both of which contextualise the monolithic structures by revealing more of the surrounding landscape. Two half-realised, sandaled figures seemingly peer into the deserted bunker in Beach Fatigue, which itself appears to be partially dissolving into the landscape. Several unidentified cuboid forms looking like discarded cardboard boxes spill from its aperture, adding a burst of colour to the otherwise overcast scene. With these paintings, Mortimer – as the artist has stated – is painting 'by the seat of his pants'; with compositions often treading a fine line between semblance and abstraction, many hover on the verge of failure, only just holding together as readable images. Indeed, the pillbox paintings can themselves be read as meditations on failure – in this case the failure of the Nazi war effort.
The spectre of death hovers over much of Mortimer's work, but with paintings such as Family Plot, 2007, the allusion becomes more overt. Working on a much smaller scale, the starting point for this surreal piece was a German military graveyard in Normandy. A backdrop of trees overcast rows of graves marked by small black crosses. In front of these stand several bizarre and macabre figures. Here Mortimer has returned to depicting whole figures, albeit still somewhat blurred and indeterminate. These naked, stooping characters evoke a raw primeval presence; like neolithic cave dwellers they appear to be shuffling around the scene, engaged in some purposeful, yet arcane activity. Painted with a muddy grey palette, the work is saturated with a deathly and disquieting atmosphere. Like all of Mortimer's recondite paintings, the responsibility of interpreting this idiosyncratic tableau is laid squarely at the foot of the viewer, who is free to project all manner of creative narratives onto the work.
Another stooping, perhaps cowering, female figure appears in the foreground of National Geographic, 2008. Behind her, an enormous fireball threatens to engulf the entire scene. Recalling Johan Christian Dahl's 1826 canvas The Eruption of Vesuvius or even John Martin's epic 1852 work The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the large painting captures a moment of impending destruction, from which there appears to be little chance of escape. The composition is unusual in that next to the fiery red cloud, a large area of the canvas has been left entirely blank, which adds to the piece's tension. Mortimer's art is one of confrontation; not only does much of it confront the artist's own fears and anxieties but it confronts us too, the viewer, with powerful imagery that demands a response. Like the blazing fireball in National Geographic, an encounter with Mortimer's haunting art may be a temporal experience, but it is one that's likely to have a long-lasting impact.