Justin Mortimer's recent paintings construct a collaged world of inchoate images rendered in Kool-Aid colors. Mortimer understands how to make an image tangible and mysterious at the same time, and also how to use hints of eroticism to add a sense of voyeuristic appeal. His hybrid world gains its energy from the tensions between pleasure and riot, power and terror: it’s a tainted place where the unthinkable seems possible or even imminent.
JS: Your color strikes me as one of the strongest elements of your work. It heightens our senses and draws viewers into your paintings.
JM: I have always enjoyed color: I stripped it out and now I am coming back to it and it is a joy, I have to admit. I have to do it in a clever way if possible. I try to make the colors slightly wrong: toxic and altered. I’m not into painting a blue sky. If one of my skies is blue it is because it has been stained by smoke bombs and sodium lighting. If it’s a sunny sky I’ll put a lot more yellow into it: I’ll make it sulfurous, hence the turquoises. It’s all wrong. It’s not the bucolic view you are expecting.
JS: Let’s talk next about “Hive.”
JM: “Hive” was a very strange painting that I made to be obviously collaged. As I’m working I continue to re-collage the digital print as I go along so I’m always adding new layers. I wanted this image to be redacted, altered, scabrous, so that you can see how it has been made up. The figure came from an image of Pussy Riot, the feminist protest group in Moscow. I’m very interested in the imagery of controlling state power and religious power and I try to critique those things without being explicit.
JS: Right, you don’t want to lecture people with your paintings.
JM: Being too didactic is boring. I find that paintings only really get interesting when things are removed, taken out. I try to deliberately annoy by tripping you up, by spatially hiding the subject. You think you recognize the subject, but it collapses and the viewer has to rebuild.
Justin Mortimer, “Kid” (2015) (courtesy Parafin Gallery)
JS: What is going on in your painting “Kid”?
JM: “Kid” shows a naked boy in a kind of forest scene — perhaps a campsite — with only a slight hint of campfire, surrounded by what could be a tent or some sheets hung out to dry. This painting alludes to the outcast, to the refugees who have been coming over on boats, to all these displaced children in Calais.
At one point the image was more sexual which was slightly problematic: I kind of regret dulling that down. It was rather like Eric Fischl’s painting “Sleepwalker” which shows a boy masturbating in a kiddie pool. I have always liked Eric Fischl’s work. When the young Brits — Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin among them — were taking off in the early ‘90s, Fischl was the lifeline that kept European representational artists going. We were referencing him, and the weird “otherness” that he had.
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