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Of You, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Of You,
June 2007, Oil on Canvas, 240x197cm
© Justin Mortimer
Slope, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Slope,
2004, Oil on Canvas, 213x188cm
© Justin Mortimer
Untitled, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Untitled, Photo Collage
© Justin Mortimer
Untitled, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Untitled, Photo Collage
© Justin Mortimer
Untitled, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Untitled, Pen on paper
© Justin Mortimer
Untitled, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Untitled, Photo Collage
© Justin Mortimer
Jockey Club, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Jockey Club,
Dec 2007, Oil on Canvas, 185x210cm
© Justin Mortimer
Submarine, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Submarine,
March/April 2008, Oil on Canvas, 137x173cm
© Justin Mortimer
Thanks to Me, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Thanks to Me,
Dec 2008, Oil on Canvas, 44x58cm
© Justin Mortimer
Beach Fatigue, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Beach Fatigue,
May 2007, Oil on Canvas, 80x110cm
© Justin Mortimer
Untitled, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Untitled, Photo Collage
© Justin Mortimer
Cleaners, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Cleaners,
2009, Oil on panel, 61 x 91 cm
© Courtesy of artist and MASTER PIPER, London
Cleaners, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Cleaners,
2009, Oil on ply, 61 x 81 cm
© Courtesy the artist and Master PIper
Cleaners, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Cleaners,
oil on canvas, 24 X 36 in
© Courtesy of the Artist and Mihai Nicodim Gallery
National Geographic, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, National Geographic,
2008, Oil on canvas, 188 x 218 cm
© Courtesy of artist and MASTER PIPER, London
Knoxville, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer, Knoxville,
2010, oil on canvas, 44 X 43.3 in (110 X 112 cm)
© Courtesy of the Artist and Mihai Nicodim Gallery
, Justin MortimerJustin Mortimer
© Courtesy of the Artist and Haunch of Venison - Eastcastle Street
Figuration is at the centre of my work. In the last 16 years (since graduating) this has been explored through two main strands: my main practice and commissioned portraits. The people in my compositions are often placed in environments that have borne witness to conflict or human vulnerability. For example disused military structures, derelict wastelands and TB Sanatoria have all figured in my pai...[more]

Interview with Justin Mortimer

London , June 2009 – I had the great opportunity to meet up with Justin Mortimer over the past week to talk about his upcoming solo show at the new temporary Jerwood Space, Five Hundred Dollars.  After a few pots of tea and one retro recording, we covered everything from his controversial portrait of the Queen to his new series of work using WW1 imagery.

Justin Mortimer, National Geographic, Jan/Feb 2008, 188x218cm; Courtesy of the artist

David Yu: How are you approaching your solo show at Five Hundred Dollars in terms of what you are showing and also what feel you’re creating for the show?

Justin Mortimer: I’m showing work that I made over the past four years. I’m showing large paintings, small paintings, prints, and also digital collages (which I use to plan the work). What I’m kind of hoping is going to happen is that when everything is all put together It’ll be clear to me and patterns within the work will emerge. I’ll simply edit as I hang.

DY: Your current work now plays with fragmented bodies amalgamated with fragmented landscapes.  There seems to be quite a lot of mimicking between the bodies and characteristics of the landscape. How do you choose the combination of your subject matter in terms of figure and place? Or perhaps, is it dependant on a narrative you are trying to create?

JM: Well the figures are often either my girlfriend, myself or images I’ve gotten off of the internet, scanned from magazines or similar types of media, and also photographs taken of friends. What I tend to look for is just a particular shape in the body. Often it is a tilt or a lack of symmetry, a sort of imbalance, which is all part of this imbalance that I strive to get in my pictures; an emotional imbalance if you like. I’ll often choose a leg that has a tilt but also has a good structural relationship with the scene in which it’s been placed. The scene is very important in terms of how the person relates to it. It almost becomes like a painting of a sculpture. I often think about my paintings in three-dimensional terms. The leg is tilted and juxtaposed against perhaps a stick coming out of the ground, a tree stump, or even just a shape behind it. This is to create some kind of tension between the elements; it brings out the anxiety and the awkwardness that I’m trying to get out of the picture.

Justin Mortimer, Lake, 2003, 198x244cm; Courtesy of the artist

DY: You were telling me before about your use and interest in historical medical imagery. Can you elaborate on how you connect this with notions of body awkwardness and the awkwardness you are trying to portray in your paintings?

JM: I’ve always worked from the figure and I’ve always been very aware of my own body.  As a child I had a lot of surgical procedures done on my legs. I spent a lot of time in the outpatient department of the hospital looking at other people that were very ill, much more ill than I was. Being aware of illness and problems with the body from a very early age has always stayed with me. About ten years ago, I started to collect medical imagery almost as if I’m trying to find myself in these photographs. As a child I was also photographed by doctors, which I found a very troublesome experience. I started empathising with the people in these became an interesting subject within itself, almost like a self-portrait. With the plastic surgery and surgical procedures imagery, I don’t know what it is that draws me to them,  maybe it’s the figurative bits that I’m interested in. I know Francis Bacon collected images of diseased mouths and medical atlas’ and stuff like that. It’s an artistic cliché. Having made a living as a portrait painter for twenty odd years, I just found it more interesting now to paint how a face could suddenly be taken away in a car accident or could be broken somehow. I have seen my own legs opened up and my own x-rays (which were very important when I was a child). I became, quite simply, interested in what was below the surface.

DY: I’m really interested in how negation fits in with your process and composition. You were saying in our first meeting that your compositions are already set within your paintings before you start applying paint. How do you choose to wipe out what you’ve predetermined when you are applying the layers.

It’s completely instinctual. It’s painting by the seat of your pants. As we have talked about in the studio, maybe not now. When I’m composing ideas for pictures I roughly sketch them out on the computer. I scan images, I collect all the data that I have on my hard drive, image databases, from scans of cats, to wedding cakes, limbs, background photographs that I’ve taken on holiday. Through the process of using the computer you can come out with a very realized image very quickly making it a very seductive process. But it’s up to me to translate that to a piece of work from that digital image. I certainly become very seduced by the sort of pseudo realities that can be made in Photoshop. So when I start painting I very quickly see holes and problems in the image and also how banal that image is. It’s up to me to bring something in with the use of paint. As I make the image, the painting starts to dictate the image so I move away from the initial source that I made on the computer. In fact, I often make the image on the computer, begin the painting, see the problems or the good things, and go back to the computer to redraft that image, scale it up, and reimpose that onto the image again. So my pictures are quite fragmented looking because it’s often a combination of six different images all part of the same thing. I’m constantly looking for those serendipitous clashes with the first layer doing something interesting with the top layer. It dictates itself, it has its own volition,  which is a completely different process from when you are working on the computer. 

Justin Mortimer, Untitled, photo collage; Courtesy of the artist

DY: With your photo collages you’ve already made decisions to cut out and piece together/take apart imagery like with the body and the arms reaching out from where the head is. This ultimately results in producing a dynamic narrative, such as the inclusion of a fireball in the scene. What’s your screening process in regards to how things are combined - is it the narrative that is driving it?

It’s a combination, there is a narrative there. The narrative that is in the pictures that I’m showing at Five Hundred Dollars is quite simply a lack of interaction between people. This is between the people in the pictures and the people in the landscape. There is an alienation from each other and their surroundings. With the gesture of the hands they are often reaching out and it is never reciprocated by the other people in the picture, you as the viewer, or the protagonist etc. I was trying to make pictures with a constant frustration; I try to heighten that by fragmenting the picture as well. So in a way the picture almost fails, like the narrative is about failure. The picture isn’t realized, it’s a combination of a lot of confusing elements being imposed and it often makes the pictures quite hard to read. I think its helps to express that sense of impotence and lack of connection that the people populating my pictures are experiencing. I use fire, you talk about my use of fireballs and flamethrowers that kind of thing. These elements can seem quite violent but in fact I don’t think the pictures are violent. That isn’t a narrative I’m interested in. I’m more interested in a disquiet I suppose.

DY: You are probably sick of being asked about your portrait of the Queen. How did you come about getting this commission? How was she as a sitter?

Justin Mortimer, HMQ, Commissioned by the Royal Society for the Arts, 1997, oil on canvas; Courtesy of the artist

JM: I got the commission because I was known in the portrait world but more importantly I had just painted a picture of some children of one of the committee members that was asked to find a portrait painter. I just painted her children and she asked me to submit a portfolio to do a royal subject. And funnily enough at the time some other portrait friends of mine had just painted the Queen or painted the Queen Mother. Well I thought to myself it can’t be “them” so and so has done it. It can’t be the Duke of this or the Lord of that. Then I was told that I got the gig and it was the Queen! I was very young, I was 27 years old. I knew there would be a lot of press interest but I didn’t have a clue how crazy it was going to be. But meeting the Queen herself… it was a summer day and I was a bit sweaty around the collar, you know! And I found the Queen well… she is the Queen and we are her subjects, for the want of a better word, and there is a real gap, in fact a bit like my paintings. There was a misdirection or a lack of connection between us. I didn’t find her a particularly fascinating person per say, but I found her, as a person, absoluely extraordinary because of what she stands for and who she’s met in her life. She’s met everybody that’s interesting; she has met the great artists, the great politicians, etc. Also being in the palace itself was a very strange experience. Especially when the Queen and I stood in this particular room, which she is always painted in by the way, and I was standing next to her looking out down the mall at all the tourists looking in trying to get a glimpse of the Queen. That was quite extraordinary. She’s a funny person, but I was there to do a job and I was trying very hard to draw her and she was nattering away to her various equerries and secretaries constantly doing things. She was very professional with me. She is painted all the time. In fact the brilliant thing about the portraits that are done of her are not the ones that you see in the Daily Mirror (UK Tabloid newspaper). In the palace there are two leather bound books of all the paintings that have ever been made of her, official portraits. And some of them are just fantastic, especially the ones that are done in former colonial African countries; there are these photographs of these paintings of the Queen looking more African than Caucasian, wearing some fantastic African prints. And they’re just fantastic, not these rather poe-faced dreary portraits done by the Royal Society of Portrait painters that end up in officer’s messes and boardrooms around various places in the UK.

DY: Was there a lot of pressure to create something “suitable”? I know there was quite a controversy with your portrait having the neck portion painted out. Some press took it as a metaphorical beheading of the queen. What was your reaction to that?

JM: I would be disingenuous if I said I didn’t know that there would be a response to what I intended to do with the picture. Because it was such a big gig I knew there was a lot of pressure to deliver. The only way I could approach the work was if I painted it in the same way I was making work at the time. Parallel to the portrait, I was making work of fragmented figures done from mail order catalogues. Heads were coming off shoulders, arms were coming off bodies, all cut up, kind of like the paper dolls you used to get at the back of girls comics with the little tabs for their clothes. So I took the head off the Queen thinking people are going to read into this like some sort of republican agenda. I suppose at the back of my mind I thought this could be quite cheeky, but my intention was always to make a very strong painting and a bloody good likeness as well.

DY: What is happening next in terms of your practice? You showed me a new piece with your return to portraiture. What brought you back to basics so to say and what can we expect next?

JM: You can see there are no heads in my previous pictures. So I thought it is time to readdress this and rekindle an interest in what it is about faces that I’m interested in. A lot of the images I’ve been looking at are images of wounded First World War soldiers and the scars and plastic surgery techniques that were used. I’ve been taking them and building them bodies digitally and making them into compositions. The way that I see my pictures going now are probably more realized, maybe more narrative-driven than the work that will be seen at Five Hundred Dollars. Five Hundred Dollars is all about fragmentation and disassociation with the space that the people were involved in, anxiety about occupying that space. Similar themes are in the new work, but I’m going to, for want of a better word, “finish” them more. I’m going to calm myself down and not get into such a rage with the work and see how the work evolves. I’m going to really focus on the one subject - this empathy with the people that have been through war, chaos, and the absolute terror of being in that situation. With that I’m hopefully not going to make is a picture that looks like stills from a war movie. Not “boys only” stuff, but more about a young soldier who is very scared. I am particularly interested in history and I find, when I go to particular places, that the places that I really relate to and resonate with are the ones where turmoil and really awful things have happened: battlefields, D-day beaches, bunkers, things like that. I also have to admit I was reading a lot of JG Ballard at the time which was and still is influencing the work, but I think I was actually interested in it because it was my subject as well. So I’m trying to bring the whole thing together not in such a literal way but in a more poetic way.

Justin MortimerJuno, Nov 2006, oil on canvas, 187x214cm; Courtesy of the artist

ArtSlant would like to thank Justin Mortimer for his assistance in making this interview possible.

-- David Yu



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