Haunch of Venison presents an exhibition of new large-scale paintings by British artist Justin Mortimer. Mortimer’s paintings are haunted by figures in circumstances of physical threat and psychological distress. They are typically surrounded by machines, medical apparatus and the evidence of conflict. These abject environments are eerily beautiful collages of images sourced from the Internet, from medical journals, holiday photos and documents of war.
Justin Mortimer’s exhibition, Resort, presents ten new oil paintings that showcase the artist’s facility as a figurative painter and his signature multi-dimensional environments.
These pictures are characterized by depictions of the human figure isolated in landscapes or interior chambers and surrounded by medical apparatus, machinery and in several works acid coloured balloons which hover around these anonymous figures. While the specific subject or location of the paintings remains mysterious, they suggest an underworld of clandestine operations and suspicious intent.
Demesne, the first work on the right, shows an image of a map projected onto a plastic sheet tacked to a wall. The site is in Afghanistan and represents an area used for Territorial Army training manoeuvres. Blue and red contour lines appear as veins and various highlighted zones and yellow spots help suggest one of the key themes of the exhibition: the metaphorical interpretation of the body as a site to be mapped, deconstructed and penetrated.
The Donor series of heads depict injured soldiers, each of whose face has been disfigured. The murky ground and close tonal variation mean the extent of their injuries and clues as to their particular historical and geographical context remain uncertain. Perhaps surprisingly, given their haircuts and seemingly contemporary expressions, we learn that the paintings are based on photographs of World War I soldiers.
In the title work, Resort, a group of malnourished soldiers form a diagonal line across a snowy landscape. Two of them appear to be treating a wounded arm while others scavenge behind. The view is obscured by balloons, which block off the heads and limbs of the figures, and positioned in the background is a baleful triangular building. Each element of the work is represented realistically but the viewer’s reading of the narrative is complicated by the unnatural combination of photo-realist black and white figures with sickly colour, their bare chests in the snow and the association of war with party balloons.
The multi-faceted nature of Mortimer’s pictures is partly achieved by his use of collage. Before starting to paint, he creates a composite image on Photoshop, which includes jpegs downloaded from the Internet, scans from historical documents and medical textbooks as well as his own photographs. This collage, which can be adapted several times once the painting has begun, is used as a reference for the subject and composition of the final work.
While Mortimer began his career making realist portraits he has since developed a body of work that focuses on the physical and psychological effects of war and surgery but eschews literal interpretation. The collage process, through its use of digital imagery, interrupted transitions between limbs and balloons, fabrics and hard surfaces, and an intense palette of blacks, yellows, greens, mauves and turquoise, locates his paintings as conceivably rather than actually real. And yet, given the photographic source material, these environments operate in such a way to include the experienced and the imagined alongside one another.
The scenes in Chamber, Crèche, Kraal and Perimeter are each marked by their partial evidence: figures stalk dark landscapes and rooms, their bodies cut-off and various instruments put to dubious use. Tapping into collective fears and anxieties, the paintings hint at a violence or physical discomfort that may or may not have taken place in reality. Who these subjects are and what exactly has happened to them remains beyond the viewer’s grasp but they captivate a human fascination with depravity. Mortimer’s use of familiar motifs within his paintings root them partially in a known world but their inexplicable presentation and mystical atmosphere is one of dreams and nightmares.