Justin Mortimer, “Cafe Au Lait” (1997) (all images courtesy the artist)

If one were to try and describe the trajectory of the British painter Justin Mortimer (b.1970) it would go something like this: after beginning his career as a social “insider” who painted the upper echelons of British society, he relaunched himself by painting dark, difficult, and disjointed works. Considering that he has been the subject of three recent solo shows — one in Singapore, another at the University of Nottingham, and one more at Parafin in London — Mortimer risks once again moving to the inside track, a prospect that makes him uncomfortable as he prefers to think of himself as an outsider.

His 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.

Although Mortimer will tell you that his work is lightening up a bit in recent years, it is unlikely that his paintings will lose their dark, operatic quality anytime soon. Mortimer’s long-standing fascination with figures that seem detached from the contexts that surround them should continue to challenge and vitalize his art.

I recently interviewed Justin Mortimer via Skype during a visit he made to New York, and asked him about his background and his paintings.

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John Seed: Justin, do I have it right that while studying at the Slade School you were a photorealist who specialized in portraits?

Justin Mortimer: I was never a photorealist — I never had that skill set — but when I was at the Slade I won a national portrait competition, which meant that I was sucked into the portrait world very quickly. I was just 21 when I got the commission to paint Harold Pinter for the National Portrait Gallery. And then, once that was on the wall, people saw it, and David Bowie and others began offering me commissions. That was really fun. In the years after art school I was able to support myself as a portrait artist. That was my job.

Justin Mortimer, “Harold Pinter” (1992), oil on canvas

JS: That must have been both a good thing and a bad thing, because it put you on a track right away.

JM: Being a portraitist wasn’t something that I wanted to do particularly, but I was able to do it. I was able to take a studio after college, and just work away. I was doing the commissions on the side and then also painting my more imaginative works — the stories that I wanted to paint about — so I was able to develop and show those works as well.

JS: How related were the two kinds of work?

JM: Technically they were certainly similar. As I was doing the portraits, I would also try to race ahead with my other work and develop things to the extent that I could, but the only way I could cope with painting a commission at the same time was to paint it in the same way that my other work was developing.

For instance, when I had to paint a very high-level commission — as when I painted the queen — the only way I could cope with all that pressure was to paint her in the same way I was actually painting in my studio, where I was having dismembered limbs, people separated from their main bodies, and color field backgrounds: disassociated figures, the isolated figure in this space. When I painted the queen this way — with her head slightly moving away from her body on this bright yellow background — it caused an uproar but in fact it was very much embedded in how I was working at that time.

The Queen, by Justin Mortimer (1998)

Justin Mortimer, “The Queen” (1998)

JS: It’s amazing how you had these two careers: you remind me of an artist friend who supported himself very well for years painting racehorses.

JM: Yes, horses, houses, pets. There is that whole micro-world of the art world that is very lucrative, but completely ignored.

JS: Were you perhaps unusually well grounded? I think many people couldn’t have handled the double career.

JM: Maybe (laughing). Nobody has ever called me grounded before, yeah…

JS: Was there a point at which your fine art career took over?

JM: I wasn’t able to give up painting commissioned portraits until 2008. That year I did an Australian Cricketer for the Lord’s Collection, and that was my last commission. From that point onwards I have managed to be able to survive from sales of just my own work.

JS: What made your career take off, and what was the focus of the work that made it happen?

JM: There was a key moment in 2004, when I entered the competition for an art prize called “East International.” It came at a very interesting point as I was completely ignored by art galleries at that moment: I was a total outsider. Anyway, the exhibition was in Norwich and was curated by Neo Rauch and his dealer, Gerd Harry Lybke. Thousands of people entered it, and somehow I ended up not only being selected but given the top prize by Neo Rauch, my hero. That was a fantastic moment of clarity for me as a figurative painter, to suddenly be seen as relevant in an international context.

JS: It’s interesting that a German painter responded to your work. It strikes me somehow that your work is more stylistically related to contemporary German painting than to British painting.

JM: I was looking at those Leipzig painters at that time. It was the time when I was starting to use the internet and Photoshop to make collages. I was dealing with the disassociated figure in space — the outsider — the person on the periphery of the situation, which is what I seem to be exploring more and more.

I had also abandoned the very bright color field paintings I was making before that point: a lot of my colors went monochrome. I stripped out all that — the yellows and pinks — and started to re-educate myself in terms of color. So, these muted tones come in and I went very dark after that and probably spent the next six or seven years painting very dark pictures, metaphorically and physically.

Now I think I’m starting to come out of the gloom a little bit. The show that’s on at the moment in London is, I’d say, pretty sunny for me color-wise. Whereas the show that has just ended in Nottingham, which is work from the past two years, has very dark pictures: figures in woods and that type of thing.

JS: Can you take a moment and tell me how you develop your imagery?

JM: I just stroll through the internet, and all the books I’ve got in my studio — secondhand books from thrift stores, old magazines, and things like that­­ — then I scan and pull that all together into a digital print which I pin on my studio wall as the reference for my painting.

JS: So that is how you came up with the very discordant imagery, for example, of your painting “Der Besucher”?

Justin Mortimer, "Das Besucher" (2014), oil on canvas (courtesy Parafin Gallery)

Justin Mortimer, “Das Besucher” (2014), oil on canvas (courtesy Parafin Gallery) (click to enlarge)

JM: Yes, for this picture it started with this ultimate European holiday destination — quite an old image from the 1960s or ‘70s. It’s so quintessentially European, and yet you have nurses in Ebola protective gear walking up the hill towards you. These Ebola figures came in towards the end of this painting: initially I had a sort of bent-over figure with three arms coming out of his face, a bit like my painting “Nes Ziona,” which is also in this show. I wanted to re-paint that figure. At any rate, I eventually stripped out that figure and put in the Ebola nurses.

So you have this incongruity: the Ebola people, coming to your doorstep, which I suppose is a theme I have explored a lot. There is a knock on the door, the SS taking someone out, the Serbian militiaman coming down your village street and pulling out the Muslims. It’s that kind of horror, but I’m also trying to present very coloristic, beautiful painting. The painting in this show is the most formal in terms of its elements. The paintings are quite cinematic and you know where you are in the space. In other paintings things are more difficult and more opaque.

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)

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.

JS: Tell me about “Pilgrim.”

JM: That is a spectacularly annoying painting based on a collage of militant feminists protesting in the Ukraine. I was trying to create ambiguity, and I remember it being troubling to paint: it’s not clear if they are in a nightclub or a riot. Clearly, there are half-dressed women, some kind of female nudes. I scrubbed it all down as I was working, throwing turps and lots of grease to give it a scabrous surface. It has a vertical choreography that keeps your eye traveling up to a second woman’s face. There is a fine line — a balance — that makes this painting work. Many of my works don’t make it all the way to the end.

JS: What are your interests outside of painting?

JM: My father was a pilot in the Royal Navy and I am an aviation geek who grew up wanting to make spaceships. I grew up interested in special effects and also made dioramas. These days I do a lot of walking and reading: I also used to sing a lot.

JS: During your visit to New York will you be seeing some art?

JM: I hope to maybe see Lisa Yuskavage’s show at David Zwirner, and maybe some works by Luc Tuymans. Of course, I will be visiting the Metropolitan Museum and looking at the work of Degas and my other heroes: French painters of the 19th century. I also like looking at outsider and folk art, made outside the filter of the art world.


Justin Mortimer in his studio

JS: Are you finding that there is a growing interest in your work and the work of other British representational painters?

JM: Yes, there is more interest now. We all rode the tide created by the former Eastern European artists who were taught in the salon system, and who then came to Western Europe. They opened people up to contemporary figuration. A lot is coming out now from younger artists. People have been crying out for something new. They want to get excited by figurative paintings that relate to their world. There is a whole generation that likes dark imagery: they like Gothic, Heavy Metal, and skateboarding.

JS: Do you feel like you are leading representation forward?

JM: Sometimes I worry that I will be seen as a reactionary conservative or paranoid in some sense if I take that stance. My peer group is much broader than that. Often I stand up for artists whose work is markedly different than mine as I want to show my respect for diverse approaches to art making.

In my own work, I am trying to open things up with overtly abstract passages in the paint. There are quite obtuse spaces and punctures in the paintings that are somehow deeply nonrepresentational. You know the chair is there, but somehow it isn’t clear. The solution for me at the moment is to push against these elements with many more odd elements that I don’t expect myself. Sometimes a figure needs to be cut in half. Doing that can take an under-performing picture into a new zone: it’s literally ‘knife-edge stuff.’ You have to be prepared to take it to that point.

Justin Mortimer: Kult continues at Parafin Gallery (Woodstock Street, London W1C 2AB) through June 27. 

John Seed is a professor emeritus of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California. He is also the author of Disrupted Realism: Paintings for a Distracted World (2019) and More...