“My pictures have no voice over.”
Justin Mortimer was 21 and still a student at London’s Slade School of Art when he won the National Gallery's BP Portrait Award with a painting of the Nobel Prize winning writer Harold Pinter. As Mortimer reminisced to Artlyist’s Paul Black some 22 years later “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.”
Today Mortimer’s art invites the viewer to question the relationships between the figurative and the abstract, the subject matter and the content and the coexistence of beauty and horror. As he told Guernica’s I’m in the sort of classic liberal trap; I’m an essentially left wing person, making very bourgeois objects. But I do want my paintings to engage on a very human level. It has by default become this luxury object, but what makes me want to make art in my studio in a dingy part of East London is that story I want to tell about our fears, our anxieties, how afraid we all are, how we’re all going to die. Are we going to go mad? Am I going to lose my job? Is my body going to fail? Will my loved ones not be around for me?
Often “working many weeks on a single piece,” Mortimer builds his works appropriating images found on the internet and in books that range from flower arranging manuals to techniques of orthopedic surgery with the latter being influenced by his childhood.
As he has said “I was in the hospital myself a lot as a child; I used to wear a caliper, I was x-rayed all the time, and I saw lots of sick children. I have memories of being in medical machinery; it’s very frightening to a young kid: they move around and make strange noises; doctors manipulate you. I suppose as an adult [that’s translated to] thinking about exploitation and vulnerability. And then I’m from a military family—my father was a helicopter pilot in the Navy when I was a child —so I was surrounded by military hardware… my dad went off to sea throughout my childhood. There was always a sense of ‘would he come home’—that childhood fear. Fear became a subject—a personal fear and also a fear I have for mankind.”
How well founded that fear maybe, Mortimer leaves to his audience’s determination. He just set up a scene for their interpretation, as he says “My more successful work has always been when it looks as if something has or is about to happen.”
Mortimer’s current exhibition Kult is on show at London’s Parafin Gallery until the 27th of June.