Justin Mortimer (b.1970) is a British artist whose paintings consistently invite us to question the relationship between subject matter and content, beauty and horror, and between figuration and abstraction. While the imagery is almost exclusively pitiless, the texturing of the paint, the play between light and shade and the passages that lead from photo-realist definition to near-abstract formlessness are so sensitively handled as to make the work at least partially redemptive as well as to indicate a key philosophical dimension: the oblique relationship between evidence and interpretation.
Mortimer’s new paintings reflect upon a world in a state of disorder. Mortimer is an avid observer of the social and political upheaval that is the staple of the international news agenda and here are echoes of recent events in Ukraine, Venezuela, Syria and Afghanistan. Yet Mortimer wrings from this tortured narrative of violence and oppression images of both hope and despair and well as a strange and troubling beauty.
The unity of Mortimer’s images keeps on breaking. Limbs are dislocated, space is disrupted. Elisions of imagery suggest a fragmented and fragmentary reality. This is not just a reflection of the ways in which one’s perception of the contemporary world is a kind of ever-evolving collage of imagery culled from an ongoing overload of print and digital information and layered over and upon our retinal vision, but also a suggestion of the ways in which the very fabric of society is increasingly fractured. The world is constantly shifting, and Mortimer’s paintings hint at the tectonic cracks and shifts appearing in the old world order. Put simply, the paintings depict a world in which nothing is stable or certain.
In fact these troubling images are composites variously sourced from the Internet, from medical journals, holiday photos and black and white images of war, collaged on Photoshop before being worked into a painting. Each canvas is built up through layers of paint that are then scraped away and built up again until a fully achieved environment forms. In this, scenes of abasement take place beside a supermarket’s plastic curtains, a washing line, some bobbing balloons, swathes of tarpaulin. The disjunctions take them beyond cold-eyed examinations of the atrocities of war and into a timeless, post-moral territory comparable to that marked out by Cormac McCarthy and JG Ballard. Real and imagined events become confused and the trajectory of humanity from barbarism to civilization is left in doubt.
Mortimer’s paintings are not reportage or documentation, they are far too allusive and de-specified for that. Instead they represent a powerful and poetic visualisation of contemporary life, in all its grim and magical reality.
Justin Mortimer graduated from the Slade School of Art in 1992 and lives and works in London. He has won several prestigious awards including the EAST Award (2004), NatWest Art Prize (1996) and the BP National Portrait Award (1991).Recent solo exhibitions include Haunch of Venison, London (2012), Mihai Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles (2011) and Master Piper, London (2010). Recent group exhibitions include How to Tell The Future from the Past, Haunch of Venison, New York (2013), Nightfall, MODEM Centre for Modern and Contemporary Arts, Debrecen, Hungary (2012), MAC Birmingham (2011) and the 2011 Prague Biennial. His work is in numerous private and public collections including the National Portrait Gallery, London, the National Portrait Gallery, Canada, Royal Society for the Arts, Bank of America, NatWest Bank and the Flash Art Museum of Contemporary Art in Trevi, Italy.