While portraiture is his thing, he won the BP Portrait Award back in 1991 aged just 21, the figures in his new paintings are, for the most part, masked, and clad head to toe in hazmat suits looking like they're inspecting the site of an alien visitation or running a meth lab in Breaking Bad. Elsewhere they may be represented by just a pair of hands or even an entire naked torso with the face covered.
Perhaps he's saying something about how the new world order, even more so than the one it's replacing, is dehumanising, making mere ciphers, of those of us that live under its rule. It's hard to say because, despite the beauty of the often stark yellows and purples he employs, there's little actual political comment. Just a sense of over-riding dread.
That's fine. Art exists to question, not necessarily to answer, and these works definitely ask a lot of questions. Sometimes the titles give clues. Odessa must refer to the current conflict in Ukraine, but Witness, Zone, and the centrepiece It Is Here could all refer to a number of conflicts, refugee situations, or other crises currently affecting the world.
The A4 sheet of paper you can pick up at the desk on your way in suggests Mortimer is reflecting upon recent events in Syria, Afghanistan, Calais, West Africa, the US, and, yes, Ukraine but if you can ascertain which painting relates to which trouble spot then you're sharper than me.
I don't think that's really the point though. I think what Mortimer's trying to show is that bad times are bad times wherever you live, whoever you are. The reasons for these problems are manifold and confusing and the solutions unclear and sullied by the fact that in creating poverty and unsafety for huge numbers of people there's a small number of very powerful people who can get obscenely rich on the back of it. I attended a talk recently by a man who'd been living and working in Ukraine for some years and he said that, if they wanted, the war could've ended years ago but there's too many people making too much money out of it for that to happen either now or in the near future. That's how the military industrial complex works - and it works the same all over the world.
It Is Here (2016)
The palette Mortimer employs reminds me of Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold - the Falling Rocket (that's the one that saw eminent critic John Ruskin accuse Whistler of 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face) . Its striations, splats of paint, and borderline abstractions bring that comparison further home but the lineage continues past Whistler and right back to Turner.
Mortimer is bold enough to do something new with this style though. Both in his rendering of the paint and in his addition of contemporary elements. The paintings downstairs (Widow, Slinter, The Lie) are populated with familiar items of everyday office furniture:- plastic chairs, ring binders, coffee cups etc; juxtaposed into a more unsettling environment. Taken in conjunction with the scenes of chemical warfare and poverty in the upper room they seem to hint at what Hannah Arendt called the 'banality of evil'. How decisions that affect, often destroy and end, people's lives are taken by bureaucrats in air conditioned offices far far away. They're just doing their job. Just getting on with life best they can.
Hoax I (2017)
Hoax II (2017)
These are very beautiful paintings, and there is no doubt beauty to be had even in the darkest of times, but they depict a world that took a wrong turn somewhere along the line and rather than correct itself insists, as pig-headedly as a stubborn motorist, that they were right all along. The further downhill we continue to roll in the wrong direction the steeper the hill those remaining will one day have to climb. In Mortimer's Fugue a lone figure looks out at the mess in front of him as if a sudden realisation has fallen over him that he's been (at least partly) responsible for the mess he finds himself, and we find ourselves, in. The options in front of him don't look good. In fact they look utterly grim. Pray to a non-existent God, sling a noose around your neck, accept the status quo, or continue with the Sisyphean task of rolling that stone up that hill.
Justin Mortimer may've opened a window on a very bleak worldview indeed but he's done it so beautifully that if we let the fresh air in it may not be too late to change things for the better. Inhale while you can for it's gonna be a long, and painful, fight against the masters of hate and division who are now raising their heads above the parapet, bolder, and more emboldened, than any time since the end of the second World War.
Kult VIII (2016)
The Lie (2017)