One of the most interesting and dare i say “authentic” artists to have come out of the new British artists school of the 90s, and has recently gained new prominence is Justin Mortimer. While the Tracy Emin’s and Damien hirst’s of the world decided to make a mockery of contemporary art with their increasing feats of self-referential narcissism (with the exception of a few choice pieces, but dare I say it, nothing in Emin’s corpus is redeemable), Mortimer went the “unconventional route”, albeit unconventional for the world of contemporary art at the time. Mortimer decided that to stick to the painterly, with the assistance of technology in some unique ways of course, was the way to go, and photo collages simply did not cut it in terms of the visual impact painting has always delivered.
to quote Fused Magazine:
“Mortimer’s practice is not for the fainthearted, but in a world in which atrocities, disasters and tragedies are all too prevalent, his paintings offer essential commentary on power and its abuse in a new, globalised (sic), digital, post-truth phase of the nuclear age”
So to wrap up Modern Art Madness Week, i present to you dear reader, an analysis of two very provocative works of post-modern, Neo-representational art that casts a very long, dark shade upon modernity, and who knows, we might just find some cereals of comparability with reactionary analysis and thinking as we go along. Be prepared, these works are truly mirror like-in their ability to reflect modern chaotic TRASH WORLD like nothing else. Let us first examine the techniques that Mortimer uses to render his tragicomic, hauntingly surreal pieces that cut across time frames and geographic/cultural/all too humanly catastrophes; Mortimer’s work focuses on war, refugee crises, spaces of tragedy, ecological damage, disease, you name it. What is interesting about his process is that he is on the side of two camps that painting as a medium has evolved into in the 21st Century. There are those who are rediscovering the value of direct observation painting, using as little mediation between the real image “out there”, and the work of art, only using sketches and memory if not done “En Plein Air”. Then there are another group of painters to which Mortimer is it’s flagship, those who use digital technology and highly mediated, staged photo shoots to render a dramatic and overwrought image, usually to make a grander political, or even metaphysical statement.
Mortimer will do thing like use models of himself or others, collect props like old masters used to do, in combination with Photoshop edits, high resolution images and digital collages. When some painters will vigorously work subject matter through sketches and color studies even, Mortimer will for each painting, go through as many as 40 Photoshop collages, constantly returning to the source material and refining it until it hits the canvas, and even then, other works are produced from further digital rearrangements. What this produces is a new relation between technology and art that does not entirely forsake traditional artistic practices and mediums, but creates visually stunning images that, while lurid, grotesque and chaotic, points toward a deeper meaning then just the usual mass-produced schlock that comes with the ability to digitally edit images.
a quote from an interview with Mortimer:
“Justin Mortimer’s paintings address the present moment. They reflect upon a world in a state of disorder and respond to recent events in the US, Calais, the Ukraine, West Africa, Syria and Afghanistan. The paintings combine imagery sourced from the internet with archival material from old books and magazines in order to visualize a world in which nothing is stable or certain, echoing the tectonic cracks appearing in the old world order”.
across time and geographic space, Mortimer is aiming at an exposure of the Horizonal, the world condition, where past and present bleed into each other in unique aesthetic ways, showing the relations between the present state of the world and past conflicts and events, A truly “post-modern eclecticism” is present in his work, but not without reason, or some nebulous lamentation of “BODIES” or trauma etc. The Subjects of Mortimer’s paintings are suffering on a much deeper, even metaphysical level. Even in the various abstract black-background paintings of party goers, such as “Parasol”, where a crowd of ravers gather around a trash heap with a parasol at the top, and a drunken topless woman is strewn among the lurid display on her back. The party is the wasteland of youth, the decadent bread and circuses, a site of chaos, therefore these paintings depict the chaotic inner world manifest in a glittery, pink and green color palette, the inside coming out if you will.
Then there are other paintings such as “chamber” that explore clinical, medicalized spaces that look straight out of a modern horror film, or more specifically, a zombie film where medical spaces are left to ruin. There is in one instance, the exposure of supreme decadence boiling over into modern youth-apathy, regret, and even morally nihilistic purposelessness, and in the other instance, the drive towards collapse, decay, post-society and a sense that this is all some mass nightmarish wish-fulfillment. A “THIRST FOR ANNIHILATION” (pun not intended), the Nirvanic principle that lay dormant behind the collective unconscious, hence the current Zombie-riddled pop-culture zeitgeist.
The two works we are exploring here offer all of this and more; Zona depicts a hazy nocturnal forest scene of a cleanup crew, or Superfund waste site workers, similar in gear to Ebola researches one often sees in the heart of African outbreaks. This is meant to denote a multiplicity of crisis-incidents around the globe. It is an eerie scene filled with the light from various green and pink flares, rendered in Mortimer’s usual style of cutting off the edges with glass-like blocks of abstraction in color and bleeding lines, illuminating the edges of the clustered scene in between the dark trees and bio hazard workers, mimicking the photo collages rendered in digital space with physical media, often accomplished by his use of palette knife scraping and layering (he said in an interview they often break and then make interesting unique marks).
You can tell that the image sources used are from old 70s and 80s Ebola workers examining samples and cleaning up villages. Now these images of death’s task masters, those ominous, de-fascialized symbols of pestilence, evokes a post-apocalyptic image in the forest, perhaps creating a metaphor between human disease and the disease brought to the earth, the forest, caused by human ecological catastrophes. To quote one Twitter luminary “we are fucking with things that cannot be easily unfucked“.
Here It Is.
In terms of the various techniques Mortimer uses, what is interesting in this series of paintings (from which “here It Is” is the title-painting) is the mimesis of digital media by use of both Acrylic and Oil effects. In the corners we can see the various nebulae circles and dots, as well as drippy runs and crazing found by mixing acrylic paint with denatured alcohol, or simply watering it down with medium to a liquid consistency. We can even see paint that is splotched on with a sponge or with rolling and scraping, and in the top oil painting layers, there is spots of color fading by using turpentine burns and medium glazes, thus giving the paint an abstract floating feeling. You can even closely see scratched on grid patterns, perhaps to gauge the measuring of the various photos Mortimer prints out.
“Here It Is” depicts quite a chaotic scene that is “heterotopic” in nature, specifically what Foucault defines as “crisis-heterotopias” depicted in art; Heterotopias are not utopias, but places of manifold interaction, where various social aspects come together, and all across the phylum, the stratification of society, heterotopias are placed “outside”, and create surprising connections, sometimes temporary, and sometimes permanent, like hospitals, grave yards, public parks, etc. places teeming with activity that is contradictory or transformative in nature.
Foucault defines heterotopias of crisis as “reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis.” He also points that crisis heterotopias are constantly disappearing from society and being replaced by the following heterotopia of deviation, places that are meant for the “bodies of the condemned”, medicalized, criminalized, psycho-pathologized subjects that deviate from the social norm, here we see in this painting both a crisis and deviation heterotopia. We see a naked party girl adorning some abstract headdress, trying to reach back into the archaic, the primordial, probably from some denizen festival like the infamous Woodstock 99 event, with rows and rows of tents submerged in sewage runoff (a site of Gen-x LARPing as their hippie parents, but totally screwing it up). Right next to her is the peering eyes of a burka-clad refugee woman, covered in those plastic or foil-like reflective survival blankets, possibly construction tarps often used in refugee camps and by the homeless for quick shelters.
Here we see the site of crisis-multiplicity, a multiplicity of human refuse, one seeks excess and the hideous ecstasy of being a nudist(woo-girl) at a rave or open air festival, the other is a displaced outcast seeking shelter; There is a certain similar reverting-back to a time before the embarrassment of nakedness and bodily functions around groups of people that happens in certain heterotopic spaces of both excess and crisis. One has no choice but the group facilities and public nakedness of an internment or refugee camp, and similarly, in certain fugitive spaces of seeking group-ecstasy, there is a shedding of shame and discomfort with excess. at concerts, especially wild festivals (the ones that are left that is) there is puking, fucking, fighting, passed out wastos, public urination, public nudity, etc. In a word, Mortimer is telling us that our future will be further characterized by these open spaces of both crisis and decadence. The painting almost gives you an unsettling feeling of driving through a homeless camp at night and shining your high beams on a random tent, voyeurisitcally looking for a brief glimpses at the common activities of people in danger or displacement, like looking into a National Geographic or documentary news documentary footage scene. It is if you are in some sort of an apocalypse, like a scene from a video game like “Left 4 dead”, and near the cluttered and abandoned highways are quickly erected tent-villages that offer little protection from the nightmarish hordes, the enemy in zombie or human form (as if there is a difference) that lurks within the dark night forests. This is the the farthest edges of humanity, in the forms of mass violence, migration, and even primal thrill-seeking that Mortimer is depicting.
When people usually think of British contemporary art, they think of the 90s New British Artists and all of their chic, in vogue art world faux-iconoclasm and nihilism, the many good painters are lost in the mix (In fact, 2018’s Turner prize has about zero painters nominated, and even fewer more traditional installation artists). Mortimer for years had to find other art scenes in Eastern Europe, ones that had migrated to Britannia, to find a niche of acceptance. like Beksinski, Giger, Heinwein before him, Mortimer demonstrates that there is a place for the darker side of visionary and surrealist painting in the contemporary art world, and does it with a fresh approach, utilizing both traditional and modern-digital elements in his artistic practice.