‘From Harold Pinter to the Unnameable: An Interview With Justin Mortimer’ – by James Cahill
- 24th February 2013
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In the 2012 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism, James Cahill received a special commendation for his piece ‘From Harold Pinter to the Unnameable: An Interview With Justin Mortimer’. His piece is below.
James Cahill is a writer and artist based in London, and works at the leading contemporary art gallery Sadie Coles HQ. As well as his work as a freelance writer, he is producing a series of paintings which explore the different modes and purposes of portraiture, particularly the idea of the disjunction between public and private faces. He also leads an ongoing series of art tours of restaurants in Mayfair, London, organised by Le Caprice Holdings. In addition to contemporary painting, one of his main interests is the afterlife of ancient Greece and Rome in contemporary visual culture.
In 1999, seven years after sitting for the young portrait painter Justin Mortimer, Harold Pinter mused, “I like the composition and the way it is painted – I like it and think of it as a painting, not a portrait.” His typically laconic words were to prove prescient. Mortimer has in recent years made the unlikely transition from feted portrait painter to internationally-exhibited contemporary artist. Since around 2006, his subjects have gravitated away from commissioned likenesses to fragmented scenes based on found images – many of them shot through with a note of simmering violence. Naked bodies judder indistinctly across the canvas; a figure dangles from a noose before a decrepit house; legs protrude from a mass of party balloons. It is all a far cry from Pinter’s taciturn mien.
A new series of Mortimer’s paintings is being exhibited at London’s Haunch of Venison Gallery this October, one of the powerhouses of the contemporary art world. The canvases abound with the darkly carnivalesque, borderline dystopian mood which has become Mortimer’s hallmark. A sense of a party gone horribly awry occurs throughout. In a large painting titled Perimeter, a figure huddles on the grass amid a scattering of balloons, and a line of eerily illuminated washing hangs in the background. The scene is all the more disturbing for this domestic stage scenery. Mortimer explains to me, “I’m very interested in painting violence without painting violence – the banality of everyday objects is something I find very moving. It’s often down to the shoe or the telephone … and the everyday objects of a violent person”.
In this and other works, Mortimer has reinvented the mode of ‘genre painting’ (that is, everyday realist scenes) albeit with none of the sunny clarity and comforting serenity of Vermeer’s Milkmaid. His latest paintings are populated by ambiguous, inscrutable characters. Chamber (2011-12) offers a glimpse of white-coated bodies in a dreary, institutional corridor – there is more than a touch of Eli Roth’s Hostel about the faceless figures and setting.
The anonymity of Mortimer’s scenes results, in part, from his idiosyncratic way of working. He initially grafts images together on a computer, explaining that “I use a lot of books, things from flea markets. I take my own photographs, I rip things out of magazines … I chop things up, tweak , and look for a certain mood which I might have in the back of my mind. But then I start painting it and I start seeing flaws, I start seeing problems, or I start seeing ideas, and reject past collages.”
Recent paintings have drawn upon gay porn and medical textbooks, although Mortimer stresses that “the porn stuff was non-sexualized. I liked the ambiguous expressions people have, and also the poses”. I suggest to him that the sense of anonymity is also crucial. “The anonymity, exactly. If I paint a friend, it becomes a portrait. Anonymity works for me very well. It gives me space.”
It is curious that Mortimer’s process of amalgamating images from different sources closely reflects the strategies of a younger (arguably hipper) tribe of digital appropriationists currently in vogue in the contemporary art scene. But by translating his digitally-sourced collages into the slow and manual medium of paint, he seems to be doing something far more interesting than quirky montage. Figures and settings are pushed even further out of context, off kilter, into an indecipherable realm. Perhaps there is something of the modernist poem about Mortimer’s paintings, in that they strive towards an impersonal and anonymous authorial voice, by means of their sheer multiplicity of shifting voices and registers.
Indeed the very mood of Mortimer’s recent works is disquietingly imprecise, in contrast to the lurid violence and abjection of previous pieces in which bombs appear to be exploding or naked people running for cover. “I want my pictures to have a certain narrative – an ambiguous narrative, but I don’t want to be specific” he says. “I’ve often thought, how could one paint a gun or something like that? And I’ve tried – but it’s impossible, because it exudes power. You have to suggest he gun in the picture, but you can’t see it.”
I tell him that some of his images, for instance the blurry nighttime scene of Enclave (2011), suggest nefarious activities involving anonymous figures – cruising or dogging – and he remarks, amused, that “your interpretation there wasn’t my intention. But I’m very happy you have interpreted it that way. I suppose my intention was to create some kind of nihilistic, possibly violent happening”. The indeterminacy of Mortimer’s art is also, of course, an apt reflection of the depersonalising effects of the internet itself, and in Mortime’s latest pictures, computers take on the quality of prosthetic, nameless protagonists.
Mortimer’s prominence marks a wider resurgence in figurative painting, which has been out of fashion for several decades. He mentions to me that while he was training at the Slade in the late 1980s, he “was looking for figuration somewhere” – although it was in scant supply and held in low regard. “There was no context for painting at all; that was so frustrating”. Mortimer credits certain under-celebrated teachers at the Slade, Patrick George and Hugh Burr among them, with keeping figurative painting alive, although only now are they finally enjoying a renaissance. In those days, they were “fairly ignored by the establishment.”
So why the recent efflorescence of figurative painting? It is worth remembering the dominance of pop-conceptualism (for want of a better expression) in the 1990s, during the febrile genesis of Britart. In 1995, the year that Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize, it would have been a shameful admission, in many chichi quarters, to express admiration for Lucian Freud and his kind. But in 2012, in the wake of Freud’s death, a major survey of his paintings at the National Portrait Gallery and a smaller selection of drawings at Mayfair galley Blain Southern, reflected his return to acclaim.
While old grandees such as Freud and David Hockney have been the subjects of major museum exhibitions, a host of younger artists – Mortimer among them, as well as figures such as Nigel Cooke, Jenny Saville and Rachel Howard – are giving fresh impetus to the genre.Mortimer proposes, perhaps jokingly, that “Maybe it’s something to do with a new sort of conservatism”. More persuasively, he observes that Cold-War-trained artists schooled in a figurative tradition have brought their practices to the West. Indeed, Mortimer credits his transition from portrait painting to his current practice to the Romanian artist , Adrian Ghenie: “if it wasn’t for him, becoming a friend and liking my work, I wouldn’t be showing.”
The Blain Southern exhibition contained an unfinished portrait of Harold Pinter from 2007, a year before the playwright’s death, a rough charcoal underdrawing with a few fleshy strokes of paint – like a ghost of Mortimer’s own portrait. While Mortimer no longer paints commissions of this kind, his picture of Pinter subtly prefigures the construction of his newest works. One of the most striking aspects of that portrait is the way in which Pinter’s head is shoved to the bottom of the canvas, where it is backed by a thin seam of piled books, beneath a block of cadmium red that threatens somehow to overwhelm or expunge the image beneath. Pinter recalled how “I came into my study and Justin had finished the painting. I suddenly saw this red background and papers everywhere. There are papers like that in my study, but not a red wall”.
Increasingly his figures are half-obscured by pools of colour, pushed to the edge of our field of view. A lot of my pictures I’m doing now don’t even have any faces in them at all – it’s just the legs, or an arm – a suggestion of a human without showing every part.”And on those occasions when Mortimer does paint a face, he achieves a supreme sense of ambivalence, of being on a threshold between oppositional emotions: “expression has to be exactly right, and it’s very hard to find that expression – between orgasm and fear and death, or worry or anguish – without having to show it.”
Pinter rightly sensed that the picture was more than a straightforward simulacrum of him., In both the Pinter portrait and recent works such as Perimeter or Chamber or Enclave, Mortimer effects in painting what the poet Sophie Hannah describes as “the unquestioning descent / Into the trap of silence […] the crawl / From visible to hidden, door to wall.” Hannah is writing about a disintegrating relationship, but her sense of a lurch away from something familiar to something nameless – or even unnameable – resonates powerfully with Mortimer’s art.
Copyright James Cahill, 2012.