Coline Milliard, Slow News (2014)
She unleashes a virescent plume of smoke across the canvas with the confident look of those sure of their cause. The black balaclava signals that she is a dissenter of sorts, but we’ll know nothing of her fight. The wood in the background is as generic as it gets: a chunk of forest that could be found in any continental climate. The mind wanders towards Russia and Crimea. Blame the news. It turns out that the central figure in Justin Mortimer’s painting 'Lilith' is partly based on the found photograph of a 1980s animal rights campaigner. But to a contemporary eye, the headdress likely places Mortimer’s character among the protests that have taken the world by storm since 2010, from Tunisia to the States, Greece to Venezuela. This piece is an apt introduction to the artist’s latest body of work. Inspired by the Russian punk group-cum-activists Pussy Riot, and Femen, the self-styled Ukrainian "sextremists," these paintings introduce a slew of female figures to a figurative practice that, until recently, had been overwhelmingly dominated by male characters. A banner-free protester, the woman in 'Lilith' announces that what is at stake in this series goes beyond the specifics of an identifiable political situation, no matter how urgent. The painter is clear about his motives. These subjects “are ciphers for my concerns,” Mortimer tells me when I visit his vast studio in Elephant & Castle, South London. “I see them as a carrier for my broader ideas, which have to do with dissent, protest, the small person against the state.”
Mortimer isn’t alone in considering Pussy Riot as “cyphers.” One might argue that they have captured the global imagination precisely because people of so many political leanings—leftist, feminist, anarchist, anti-clerical—have been able to see them as icons of their cause. In an open letter published during the trial of Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote: “They are conceptual artists in the noblest sense of the word, artists who embody an Idea.” Which one exactly, he doesn’t say, as if it was up to us to choose. In his paintings, Mortimer embraces the multifarious symbolic value of Pussy Riot and complexifies it by interjecting material from other sources. Clad in a Joker t-shirt, the main character in Joker isn’t just, as we might first think, a Pussy Riot member. Her head has been grafted onto the body of a male Egyptian protester, and here is another aspect of Mortimer’s artistic strategy. The painter is no journalist, recording and reporting from the world’s stage: he is an image-maker, attempting to grasp something more fundamental about the archetypal situation of the individual rising against the powers that be.
The question of image-making is particularly germane to Mortimer’s choice of topic for this series. Both Pussy Riot and Femen have cannily managed their images to garner the kind of visibility necessary to sustain their existence as collectives. Their actions’ persuasive value resides in their afterlives as documents available on the web, much more then it does in the actual events. “Visual and shareable” is the order of the day. “One lesson of the Pussy Riot case lies in the fact that local activism and radical art can survive only if they are visible in media space,” writes Maria Chehonadskih in a response to Žižek’s letter. “To cause a scandal and maintain its effects requires of the artist-activist the creation of a powerful image and a heroic self-representation.” Cameramen, editors, and social media specialists are all key figures in the organization of this new generation of protesters, or perhaps web-performers. The real audience is not in the street, but a few clicks away.
Somewhat paradoxically, Femen—which started in 2008 as a protest against sex tourism in the Ukraine—presents a female body associated with the misogyny it condemns. The members’ topless interventions, as sexy dolls or flower-crowned, porny Eastern European maidens, exploit their attractive figures to generate media coverage. If their methods are to be judged by that kind of result, it’s been a very successful strategy. But Femen’s pursuit of exposure also encourages a lewd vision of womanhood that risks undermining their message. All too aware of his position as a “straight, middle-aged, middle-class white guy,” Mortimer has tried to avoid making salacious images when picturing Femen members—a challenge, as he is forced almost to contradict their chosen self-presentation. One of the ways through which he achieves this is by depicting the Ukrainian protesters not in the full glory of their choreographed actions, but in the aftermath, as they are taken away by security guards. The hatred that Femem members encounter is palpable, embedded, in works such as 'Parasol'. The scream coming out of the woman’s mouth is amplified by the riot of pinks, reds, and oranges. One feels the heady mix of lust and anger Femen’s activists provoke. While the artist is no doubt sympathetic to the claims of the “sextremists,” his opinion is voiced only discreetly. In this picture, the shirt of the policeman isn’t blue, but a greenish turquoise associated with the hospital workers of Mortimer’s previous series. This subtle colour change can be read as the condemnation of a society that tends to treat radical feminists like hysterical madwomen. The artist acquiesces but remains purposefully vague: “it’s not just some cops with the protesters, maybe it’s something else.”
Working from such an iconic set of news images is, Mortimer says, “very tricky.” The subject risks overtaking the paintings and blinding viewers to anything but that which they represent. Yet artists have returned to news imagery again and again, as a way to make sense of their reality. Pop art—and the work of Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, and James Rosenquist—gives the most obvious examples. Those Mick Jaggers, Marilyn Monroes, and John Kennedys defined an era, in the same way Pussy Riot and Femen might come to signify our troubled decade in the future. But the link between the painted figures and their actual referents is kept loose. “It’s really easy to get bogged down with this very self-conscious idea of the artist making commentaries on the world around him,” says Mortimer. “That’s why I like making things slightly more opaque.” Nothing here is clear-cut: a simple interpretation is dangled and then snatched away.
As for most painters, the subjects represented are only one part of the work. And Mortimer is a painter in the full, loaded sense of the term. Much of his oeuvre has to do with the medium itself. The scarlet hood in 'Joker' doesn’t only function as a marker of political dissent. It is also a bright circle, a chromatic and sensorial event on the surface of the canvas. Looking at these works, we can only marvel at the rich vocabulary of textures the artist deploys, effortlessly moving from slick, almost manicured patches, to wild swathes of paint, drops, stamps, and furious brushstrokes. The resulting pictorial dynamism both serves and exceeds the subjects represented. In 'Joker', Mortimer even leaves small areas of primer bare, encouraging the beholder to understand the many coats of paint constructing the image in other areas of the canvas. “I really wanted the viewer to see how the picture was built,” he says. None of the artist’s work can be described as abstraction per se, but as he himself explains, his pictures “have to work on an abstract level as well.” Representation is relentlessly unsettled. In 'Joker', the washing line in the foreground stops halfway. The eye, which expected to travel comfortably from one side of the picture to the other, is instead abandoned amid the flat whiteness of the background. Lost in a snowy void. Mortimer alerts his viewer to the painterly nature of the image, its painting-ness, reminding her of the fictive nature of the image under scrutiny. A similar push-and-pull subtends '(Untitled (Balaclava))'. First attracted by the intense eyes peering through the day-glo balaclava of, we speculate, a Pussy Riot member, the eye is stopped dead in its tracks by the solid swathe of colour in the foreground, which immediately undermines the suspension of disbelief demanded by purely figurative painting. “I do like the viewer to have to push through the fact that it is a two dimensional object,” says the artist. The solid colour “is like a sudden gear change in the image that, I think, makes the viewer less complacent.”
The overriding ambivalence of these works permeates the colours themselves. The whites are never purely white, but tinged by a sickly yellow, the greens at times verge on brown and at others on turquoise, and the red is always corrupted by orange, pink, or dry-blood. Purple, that elusive hue caught between the warmth of carmine and blue’s intrinsic coolness, is here more prominent that it ever was in Mortimer’s earlier work. While redolent of some of the artist’s previous dark paintings, it announces the beginning of a new palette. “I like using colour, but I still want it to be toxic,” says the artist. “Purple is a way of painting black without painting with black paint.” Only a patient examination of the canvases will reveal the wealth of purples present in this series. Sometimes the colour is mixed and applied directly onto the canvas; sometimes it is built up using the traditional oil painting technique of overlaying glazes of red and greens. Each shines differently according to the light.
In 'Untitled (Dog/Night scene)', the purple is as dark as night. A naked man, cock in hand, is pictured in what appears to be a forest. He holds his penis firmly, with a gesture not unlike the grotesque boy’s in Georg Baselitz’s infamous Die große Nacht im Eimer (The Big Night Down The Drain, 1962-3). In this piece as in Baselitz’s, male genitals are brandished like a weapon. More dogs were involved in the original composition, partly inspired by images of hunters and their trophies. Only one of them remains, uncomfortably close to the man’s groin. Fuchsia balloons obscure his face, an out-of-place addition that adds greatly to the pervasive feeling of unease. “This picture has to do with my rage with the Alpha male,” explains Mortimer. “It came out of anger, really. To me, [this figure] has almost become Daddy Putin.” A Daddy Putin masturbating in front of someone standing just about where the viewer would be, and readying himself for assault.
Yet the more one looks at it, the more the image seems to shift, to the point of generating a sentiment close to sympathy. On the left-hand side of the composition, another character holds a thin paper in his hand, perhaps skinning up a joint. The man we first imagined as an aggressor could be part of a subculture, a group of doggers, say, combating boredom by displaying their sexual prowess (or enjoying that of strangers). He might simply be at a kinky party or, like the girl in 'Lilith', at some sort of protesters’ camp. More interpretative possibilities spring up as the eye travels the surface of the canvas. This man we first thought of a rapist-in-waiting becomes victim, ridiculed by the glossy balloons invisible tormentors have attached to his hand. We think of a prisoner undressed and tortured by his jailers. They have already decided to shoot him dead, and delay the moment, indulging in “a bit of fun.” In this new light, the balloons only render the horror of the situation more acute. Mortimer used this pictorial strategy in the past, in pictures such as 'Annexe' (2012), in which they appeared to grossly camouflage a body. The sinister motif crops up again, drawing links between the artist’s subjects and their common load of pain. Yet at no point looking at 'Untitled (Dog/Night scene)' are we allowed to settle on a final interpretation. The artist purposefully traps us in narrative limbo.
For every piece, Mortimer combs the web to source his images. These are then assembled on Photoshop and reported onto the canvas using a grid system. Elements of the composition, figures, and sometimes entire groups, might then be painted over as the painter progresses with the canvas—Mortimer calls it a “process of deduction.” The vast expanse of darkness on the left-hand side of 'Lilith', for instance, first included two naked men, doggers, one of them fucking a girl (who was never painted). They eventually disappeared but have left a faint trace behind—if only in the way the artist was forced to handle the paint over them. “I like to fight something that is underneath,” he says with glee. This “fight” contributes to the textural richness of Mortimer’s canvases. And the painter also often leaves real cues to be picked up: the remnant of a foot, the faint outline of a dog. The surfaces pulse, saturated by the ghostly presence of those characters who didn’t make the final cut. They all suggest that there is more to each painting that what immediately meets the eye. Imagination is invited to take over.
Mainstream media and the digital world played a role in Mortimer’s practice long before the artist turned his attention to Pussy Riot and Femen’s web-savvy campaigns. “I was always looking for something beyond the life model,” he says reminiscing about his student days at Slade School of Fine Art in London. His attraction to news images first led him to magazines. The artist remembers picturing Romanian orphans when their scandal first broke in Western Europe in 1990: “the first painting I made of the poor person outside of society,” he says, musing on the reoccurrence of outsiders in his subjects. As soon as the Internet became more widely available it became a natural hunting ground for the artist, sucked in by the bottomless wealth of images it offered. As soon as a found image is painted, he continues, “it becomes impotent and neutral because you are not saying anything else than that what already exists. So one has to choose an image that is loaded but also somehow twist it, or manipulate it, in a way that has mystery.”
Mortimer’s technique echoes the way information is broadcast, passed on, and degraded over time on the worldwide web. In his work, images are also appropriated, transformed, and eventually shared in a visual game of Chinese whispers. His take on the heart-wrenching portrait of Ukrainian anti-government journalist Tetyana Chornovol, 'Donor VI', is a case in point. The original snapshot shows the Euromaidan leader lying in bed, disfigured, after she was severely beaten up in December 2013. The image went viral in hours. In his depiction, Mortimer turned the image 45 degrees up, creating an awkward tension. Originally a supine figure, Chornovol is now upright, her head at a peculiar angle. She could be a hanged woman. “It’s almost impossible to negotiate that plethora of instant imagery,” says Mortimer. “Everything is there, bang, when you want it. It’s so seductive, but it’s up to the artist to negotiate a way through that.” Although artists have explored the challenges and opportunities offered by mainstream media imagery since the rise of Dada in the early 20th century, the sheer volume of pictures that have become available online in the last decade has radically changed the deal, irreversibly altering the meaning of “mass media.” With his casual remark, Mortimer suggests a paradigmatic shift in the role of artists—particularly those tackling the web’s tantalizing cornucopia of imagery. From image-makers, artists have become image-filters, helping us to navigate an ever-expanding sea of images.
And choice is not all. The distance between the original snapshot of Chornovol and Mortimer’s painting is incommensurable. The former is immediate: instantly taken, instantly processed, shared, and consumed. The latter requires the investment of this all-too-rare currency: time. The time the artist has spent scrutinizing the image, learning it intimately enough to be able to reinvent it on the canvas, is added to the time it will take a viewer to receive the work, as her eyes stumble on semi-abstract patches and her mind finds a way among the manifold stories unravelling on the canvas. Mortimer’s work uses the perpetual stream of online images defining our frantic contemporary life to decelerate our visual processing of the world.
Martin Herbert, Unsayable (2014)
Midway through Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, a chemical accident occurs and a giant poisonous cloud blooms above a placid suburban community. An evacuation takes place: in the extended, Boschian crowd scene that ensues, swirling with misinformation and protective-suited operants, the main character receives a possibly fatal dose of contamination. Then the ‘airborne toxic event’ disperses, leaving everyone beneath it inwardly altered somehow, and news—or its opposite—arrives via someone carrying a television:
“There’s nothing on network,” he said to us. “Not a word, not a picture. On the Glassboro channel we rate fifty-two words by actual count. No film footage, no live report. Does this kind of thing happen so often that nobody cares anymore?”
The coming of the cloud, in the context of a book about fear of death, is metaphorical. It is the grim consciousness of inevitable demise—the broader recognition, too, that something really bad and life-changing can happen at any moment—with the terrible codicil that this is, apparently, ordinary. It doesn’t make the news. Later, the main character and his wife confess to each other their core-shaking fears of dying, allied to seemingly even greater fears of the other dying first. Each, it’s clear, has carried this burden—in the wife’s case, to the point where she’s taken an experimental drug designed to paralyse the fear-of-death receptors in the brain—alone, as we all do. The irony of the human condition, DeLillo writes elsewhere, is that the most evolved creature suffers most, being the only one that is aware that it will die. The ubiquity makes the fact almost a banality. But to someone involuntarily focused on that fact, nothing matters more.
Consciousness of the widescreen melancholia that comes with knowledge of the fragility and mindless cruelty of life is not easily represented. It can descend into howling illustrative kitsch so easily, the easiest route into triteness being to use the iconography, call a skull a skull. In his essay 'Vermeer in Bosnia' (2004), Lawrence Weschler discusses how the painter, within scenes of apparent placidity, subtly and contrarily points to a consciousness of perpetual, brutal human conflict, which flickers at their edges; in 'The Sight of Death' (2006), T.J. Clark extensively unpacks the equally unassuming pictorial strategies that Poussin used to represent death within a pair of landscapes. (If this is notable, it’s not least because Vermeer and Poussin might be considered two of the most Apollonian and untroubled painters in history.) A presentation of abiding mortal hurt requires strategies, proxies, perhaps a cloud that creeps across your face, that you breathe in before you even know what it is. Those proxies need not be serene in themselves.
It’s night. We’re out in the scrubby woods and something undefined but rough and ominous is going on. A naked young man stands, trousers dropped and genitals exposed, face dehumanisingly obscured by pinkish balloons. In a further humiliation, a dog rises up towards his crotch; another figure—clothed—is half cropped off, veering, on the left. In the background are tents, as if this were a camping trip gone badly awry. The main figure’s skin is greenish, as if decaying, but it’s just the light—the painting shows all the signs of descending from the everyday chill of flash photography, down to the giveaway white circlets on the balloons. The landscape is at a weird tilt. The whole thing is at a weird tilt—the image owes something to amateur porn, and also echoes the ritual disgracing we’re familiar with from photographs of Abu Ghraib. Move the canvas a bit to the left, and you imagine that the cropped-off figure—perhaps the one who put the balloons there, in a grim hey-prisoner-it’s-your-birthday move—is grinning.
But we’re projecting. None of this might be happening except in our heads, where it sets off blackened, discordant bells. Let the eye move down the canvas. In the foreground everything falls apart; it’s just paint, materiality. This is a construct, we’re reminded: the work originates in a digital collage of fragments, which Justin Mortimer has used as the starting point for a painting that has developed its own compositional and mood-driven rationales and needs. The imagery has been artfully pulled together to create an atmosphere of palpable disquiet, and the work advertises its demotic photographic origins. And this one is relatively coherent. In another work, a cavalcade of masked protestor-type figures, one wearing a Joker T-shirt, seemingly slide down a snow-bank before a Tudor-style house (passing by a washing-line, apparent symbol of civility) into painterly non-space on the canvas’s extreme right. It feels like a crevasse, but it might as well be the mental sinkhole you fall into when you broach the ever-swelling imagistic archive of the Internet, when—like Mortimer—you lose hours to typing words into Google Image Search and get confronted with images far too extreme, too literal, too obscene—in the sense that postmodernist theorists used to talk of an extreme, dismaying, all-on-the-surface literalism of images—to do anything with.
Such a painting pulls in two directions. On the one hand it partakes of a heavily vectored, Baroque pictorial logic that naturally, insistently moves the eye around. (Compositionally, Mortimer’s other main tendency is to agglomerate disparate subjects together into an architectonic form on a ground, like the surging flow of a nightmare.) On the other, what the eye is carried through is a discontinuous orchestrated chaos that’s clearly set in a number of places at once. Mortimer—a former portrait painter, replete with academic training—has rendering skills in spades, but he’ll also go to work with rags and newspapers to abrade his surfaces, so that the picture veers between being a window and a wall. On multiple levels the result is that, effectively, the work stutters. There are several reasons for that. First, clearly, Mortimer has something blue and internalised to get out, but doesn’t trust a single image to act metaphorically, is clearly even suspicious of the process: any one image is too bounded, too narrow for the condition he’s carefully approaching. Secondly, the anxious experience of navigating the canvas, of being on-course for a while and then falling in an optical ditch, is germane to that condition also; but it’s something to be felt physiologically, rather than decoded. And thirdly, this process sets up the idea that the painting is only an attempt to say something. The thing itself won’t be said and thus it becomes, to rehearse a well-worn metaphor, the thing behind the door in the suspense movie; the door that the smart director keeps closed.
Mortimer has spent some years getting to this apprehensive point, accumulating along the way a handful of skewed ciphers. From paintings circa 2007-9 featuring contextless explosions, hanged figures and clean-up crews, he’s departed ever further from his origins and training as a portrait painter (albeit one who, he says, would tend to knock out a painted eye in order to get closer to the physical experience of seeing the world in fragments). Around 2010-11 his paintings gravitated towards crepuscular hospital situations: here, Mortimer would zoom in on wounded limbs—legs, often. These were marooned, ominous edits, as was a work like 'Contestant' (2011), a young, close-cropped man sucking his thumb above some abstract flesh, a Bacon-esque blat of bloody paint coursing neatly off his skull. The continuity here, and in the most recent paintings, is the sense of being in what Mortimer calls a ‘perimeter world’: an involuntary observer placed on the edge of something unnerving and unfixed. When, as recently, he has painted party scenes, the party has already spun out of control and become, potentially, something sick and violent. In a reverse of that, scenes already brutalising become, with the addition of balloons, parties. See those woodland escapades; see the half-hidden hospital scenarios 'Creche' and 'Annexe' (both 2012).
Mortimer’s balloons are often placed over bodies. Balloons are a fullness that is always menaced—they’re also, Mortimer notes, less perfect than they appear, thinner in certain places and prone to bulging—and liable to violent, instantaneous destruction. This sense of an object that is barely sustained dates back to earlier paintings in which Mortimer limned polythene wrapping around boxes, sliding it off so that it retained its shape, and painting it. This might have been a technical exercise; but it was actually a way of presenting something at once fixed, specific and utterly tenuous. What the balloons and their interlacing with bodies did was clarify that bodies are tenuous too. Look at the figures in landscape; the branches become brachial. Everything’s a bodily synecdoche here, as temporary as a body, even as bodies are reduced to things.
Full-on articulation can make subjects go dead. Saying, directly, that reality is fucking fearful doesn’t get us very far; semaphoring that what you want to say can’t really be said gets us further. There are figures wearing makeshift gas masks in Mortimer’s recent paintings; protestors, evidently, and protest is generally necessitated by prior brutalising, but also, as we’ve seen, the site of the protest now is previously peaceable urban space. Consider that these paintings, then, are not directly about protest but about a world you knew and could navigate—somewhat like old-fashioned, perspectival painterly space—being turned upside down. That, on some level, has happened to all of us at some time, and for many of us there’s a constant, shifting sense that it could happen again, at any time, and worse: a thrumming electricity in the blood, a sense of premonition. We used to have a vocabulary for this nervy movement through the world, but then existentialism became an intellectual fashion and, as happens to fashionable things, it fell out of favour. But the world didn’t get any easier, and we need a vocabulary still. We need a vocabulary for realists; we need it for escapists, too.
In Mortimer’s art, as we’ve seen, the answer is a compelling economy of substitutions. But for all its darkness, at the same time this stuff is shot through with aesthetics. Art can balance opposites, and Mortimer does that; his paintings have compositional savvy, controlled textural abandon, and seductive colour. You’ll want to look, in other words. So you look at a painting whose background is orange and pink like a radioactive sunset blacking out trees and grass seen queasily at a couple of different points during the day. A welcoming garden umbrella is detached and airborne like a flying saucer, underneath which are smears of contaminated aqua paint, bursts of coloured smoke bomb, a soldier’s legs, and a hectically upended topless girl—a party girl—with male arms holding her up. We’re barrelling through about seven messy subworlds at once here: equalised, as they are in digital reality, just a click away. You notice that the sky looks like a Rothko, that the umbrella which won’t protect you and has become weaponised nods back to Bacon, that there’s a degraded sliver of English landscape in there. It’s seductive and scary and you wonder what this could be the acceptable face of. It’s there in your mind’s eye, and you should make yourself look at it.