Justin Mortimer

Contemporary and Old Art Reviews

Justin Mortimer

Postby CAP » Thu May 02, 2013 2:54 pm

A meandering trail of bread crumbs leads me from one of those Re-title feeds where small galleries pitch their wares desperately – in this case Beers Lambert – eventually to Mortimer. Beers Lambert? No I’d never heard of them either, Baldwin Street EC1, off Grays Inn Road. Let’s face it - galleries can be anywhere these days. Anyway, Beers push young Romanian painter Dan Voinea as part of a supposed trend led by Adrian Ghenie, Michaël Borremans and Justin Mortimer, they see as a variant on realism, bafflingly. Voinea’s stuff is certainly in the wake of Ghenie – maybe a bit more focus on the figure, a bit less moody settings and tasteful scrapes and drags with the palette knife or squeegee. But there’s the same melodramatic striving for impact, the same bizarre confrontations, the same slick mix of techniques. These guys!

I don’t see Borremans as quite with this programme, although the dark mood and old master chops are shared. But he’s way more deadpan. Actually Natalie Frank strikes me as closer to the others, but I guess she gets confined to Bushwick city limits. She skips the palette knife/squeegee thing – or maybe I missed it. Or maybe she should try, if only for marketing. She could call herself something like Natalie Lugosi, pretend to some Transylvanian heritage… just throwing these things out there. If Jacques Ranciere had said it you’d go along. The fact that Ghenie’s prices at auction have just gone through the roof has a lot to do with all this manoeuvring of course. It should throw some attention Voinea’s way, Beers will certainly be hoping as much. The Romanian push is sort of interesting. Voinea is Bucharest trained – not part of the Cluj scene like Ghenie and associates. Marius Bercea has got the landscape side covered – again, mostly with scumble. Others like Savu and Canti have other goals. But there’s quite a bit of action coming out of Romania one way or another, whereas Ukraine and Hungary say, much less so. I’m open for conspiracy theories. Anyone?

And then there’s Justin Mortimer. No, really Justin Mortimer. No, he’s not related to Emily, so far as I can tell. If I was aware of him at all it was for modish society portraits, a while ago. I think he may have won a BP Prize at some point (?) Anyway his switch to scenes of atrocity and ominous medical/scientific routines somehow slipped right by me. That’s what you get for watching the periphery too much – you miss things in the mainstream. So I’ve been poking around, trying to work out how you get from portraits of the Queen to war as we know it. Then I found out Justin works up sketches and photo sources in Photoshop and reviews the progress of his paintings there and he began to sound like me! Imagine! Justin Othersuperstar! Except my stuff doesn’t come out like his, for some reason. That’s because you’re not as good! You’re weak Cap! Weak! You don’t have that precious Slado-masochistic training and a finely attuned British sense of understatement and repression! That instinct to deny and apologise even before properly witnessing. You can’t teach that. You should have stuck with painting backdrops for Neighbours and illustrating for Playboy, you burnt-out sad and cynical old hack! Which reminds me, it must be about time I phoned home again. Actually the difference probably has more to do with what we find as sources. And Justin’s Photoshop files are actually pretty basic. I bet he’s not even using CS6!

Next I watched a You Tube of Justin doing a presentation at Haunch of Venison. Too bad Haunch has quit the primaries market now – Ghenie showed there and Justin is probably bummed by the whole thing. Maybe he can go back to Blain|Southern, they seem understanding folk. :lol: I don’t see Beers as an option though - sorry Kurt. :cry: Anyway Justin is obviously a practiced public speaker – see the way he works the crowd – the looks, the turns. Note those hand gestures, the smooth, self-deprecating patter. That’s not me. Somehow I just can’t do the hand gestures. I know TV reporters are schooled in all this body language stuff as well these days but it just makes me feel like a member of the cast of Thunderbirds. “Yuss M’lady…” My hands belong in my pockets. Of course Mortimer comes across as a bit of a wally (hands up those who sniggered at that scruffy scarf or whatever it is slung around his throat?). But at least there’s no wide-eyed staring aimlessly at the ceiling with mouth agape until your girlfriend discreetly nudges your foot with her umbrella from the front row and you snap out of it with a “…Sorry what was the question again?” or “Is it my round?” It’s always my round. You’ve really got to have your answers prepared in advance – and you’ve got to remember them. That’s what I mainly take away from this. But seriously, Mortimer’s suave, rather arch manner – just like his paintings – don’t quite persuade. He’s a nice chap really, but he’s not about to get real here.

Two issues are worth considering. The first is the fragmented approach to realism, whether as technique or subject matter, the second is the role of narrative or what used to be called anecdotal painting. These come up in Mortimer’s talk, but not in any focussed or rigorous way. Talks are no good for this kind of thing anyway. That’s where us tongue-tied, staircase wit types come in – recollections in tranquillity and all that. Mortimer likes the collaging in Photoshop but then he’s got to somehow make them painterly and fresh in the finished work and the strain, particularly in the larger works, grates for me. They still look like painted collages. Clunk. Dashingly painted collages, but you know, collages… The question is how much are you prepared to adjust with the paintbrush to the collage? For Justin it comes down to just a few edges and textures, basically, maybe a compositional tweak or two. Things like foreshortening, proportion, modelling to figure and lighting to setting get imported more or less as is. They’re what give the painting its affiliation with realism > photography. It’s interesting in as much as he plays around with the masking or outlines in Photoshop, with the continuity or contiguity of objects (there are a great many more options in Photoshop, of course…), but it doesn’t quite slide into painterly options from there. The two are a bit too tidy, a bit wary of each other. I’m fine with starting from photography for painting; I just don’t think too much of it should be there at the end. And once you think about how to get painterly, I don’t see that you can take options for drawing, modelling and so on, off the table – if the painting is to be spontaneous and persuasive. It’s the old problem of planning and executing really. Realism be damned I say.

These things dog Ghenie and Voinea as well, but I don’t think they even have the flexibility of Photoshop reworking of sources. I could be wrong. They’re more into bald gaps and massive impasto as some kind of counterpoint to photo sourced content, old school finesse. But the problem is much the same. There’s this one, Dog or Devil 3 or something from 2010; this seems a better mix. But even here there’s not a lot of flow. It’s very stop and start and maybe just a bit too busy, too much a compendium of technique. These guys are drunk on technique. I’ve got Mortimer ahead on points for restraint here, more of a feel for process. The other problem is that nuclear cloud in the background with the deft drag in sepia across it. Clunk. Iconography here chaps is fatally under-ironic, over-reaching and just a tad naive. This brings us to the second issue. Mortimer talks about wanting to tell stories - Ghenie is intent on big issues, ‘Important Painting’. They both look to Bacon – as does Frank. They love the tantalising anecdote to Bacon, the story half told or glimpsed but they can’t quite leave it there. The whole point of Bacon’s approach is that you can’t take it anywhere else, you can’t know the back story or the consequences, you always just have what you have. The picture never gets any clearer, without becoming a picture of something else. It’s an existentialist 50s thing and I think in the 21st century the kids don’t really get it. They get the technique, the excitement, and they think they should be able to take that somewhere else. But as soon as you do it loses its magic and falls apart. It becomes just an illustrator’s tool. You can’t give those frantic glimpses some bigger, more literary or historic theme, it just empties them.

So all the precarious balancing of photorealism against painterly gesture or technique, all the peeping around drips and drags at coy snippets of gossip, ends up looking like a pantomime. It’s a sort of hollow version of painting. I think a better option would be to just flaunt the sources – go at intertextuality full on. Never mind the elusive newsreel or obscure historical sources – I say go for Dr Who and Star Wars, Brad and Angela, Obama and Osama, Fukashima and the oil spills. Really tie in with all the most engrossing stories and let them find their own slippage, ambivalence and failure of technique. I agree the narrative issue is important. It is something painting needs to rethink. But I’m not convinced scary leads the way.

To get back to Mortimer’s puzzling development – it’s interesting his website only shows examples of his work back to 2007. I’m assuming this is around the time of the swift transition. It leaves what -around 15 years of his career out? It may be he’s planning to put it all in eventually, but it does kind of heighten the suspicion that he’s not entirely comfortable with the switch either. I can understand that, it’s a bit like going through a divorce. He acknowledges somewhere that meeting with Ghenie was decisive, although in the video that sounds like it follows on from his break. There is another video that shows earlier works (from 2000), also based on Photoshopping sources. But it is almost a second career, such a change of tone and attitude, structure and theme. You do wonder about decisive events in the artist’s life. I tend to think the Ghenie connection comes as a massive confirmation for him rather than a revelation. Behind both Ghenie and Mortimer I suspect is the example of Rauch in the noughties – especially the scientific/military crossovers in themes. But of course it’s Rauch without that austere linear discipline, that oh so dry German wit. If he prompted a wave of history painting, this is what we’re really looking at with Ghenie et al, with new improved ingredient - hysteria.

When I look at things like Family Dollar (2009) by Mortimer, I do wonder why he didn’t get taken up by Saatchi. This is so sensational you’d think it would be a perfect match. But then Saatchi shied away from Rauch (as far as I can tell) and I’m not sure about his Romanian holdings. Could be he remembers Mortimer from the portraits and senses something false here, could be he’s just over shock and awe. Then again Saatchi changes his mind, so he may yet discreetly acquire works at ”over market prices”, as he likes to boast. There was a piece in The Observer that laughably claimed Mortimer was working in ‘genre’ painting, as understood for 17th century Dutch painting like Vermeer or Terborch, as scenes of quotidian or domestic activity. I don’t know about author James Cahill’s background, but scenes of mass burials, disembowelments and bizarre medical procedures aren’t quite so familiar down my way. No, I think Mortimer is fairly and squarely aiming at history painting – in the broader sense of Istoria – or the illustration of vital legend or myth as much as factual chronicle. It was probably little slips like that cost Cahill first place in the Anthony Burgess Prize. I wonder if something similar won’t happen with Mortimer’s career?
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Re: Justin Mortimer

Postby MGP » Sat Jul 20, 2013 9:16 am

Enjoyed your text, thank you. In case of interest, regarding Mortimer's pre 2007 works, check out this text by David Trigg on a cached link:

http://justinmortimer.co.uk/Justin%20Mo ... essay.html
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Re: Justin Mortimer

Postby CAP » Sat Jul 20, 2013 3:44 pm

Thanks MGP, older works on that page from 2002-3 show the artist decisively moving into landscape and away from the fashion stuff from around 2000 (the Photoshopping I think already in place), so I'm now assuming the Big Break occurs around 2001...

Does this confound an imputed Rauch influence? (Rauch wins the Van Gogh Prize in 2002) It certainly softens it. :ugeek:
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Re: Justin Mortimer

Postby GFS » Tue Aug 20, 2013 4:53 pm

I tend to agree with your assessment of fashionable Clug realism: Genie et al (though I admit to being seduced by their imposing beauty), however, I do not necessarily agree with your conclusions regarding the tautology between Mortimer's paintings and collages. Barring a few of the more recent large scale works (ie. Kraal, Creche), I find there to be a remarkable and often magical transformation that occurs during the transcription of collage into paint, which seems more to be a process of painterly discovery, than facile gimmick (ie. Voinea). Taking a painting such as Jockey Club (2007) and comparing it to its source (http://bringbackpubes.com/WWW.BRINGBACK ... 0pubes.jpg) I feel as though it has almost completely transcended its photographic source.
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Re: Justin Mortimer

Postby CAP » Thu Aug 22, 2013 4:29 am

You're right GFS - I'm being too hard on the guy - The Jockey Club- doesn't look that much like its source photo-collage.

If anything I sort of miss the horse... :(

I think we can agree sometimes the magic works, sometime's it doesn't. What's left of the horse in the final painting is definitely interesting, as well. :)
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