The Carnally-Elegant World of Artist James Mortimer: Where the Mundane is Never What it Seems
James Mortimer not only has one of the coolest names in the Sherlock Holmes canon, he also happens to be an incredibly talented contemporary artist that pulls in comparisons to Dutch masters and Oscar Wilde. Considered to be one of the UK’s most promising artists, Mortimer is just as fascinating as the work he produces, mixing a calm tenderness with bursts of carnal energy and violence.
As a descendent of the 18th century painter John Hamilton, Mortimer isn’t just satisfied with one artistic medium, excelling at painting, drawing, watercolors, sculpture and quick sketch art. With influences that include the late 19th century fin de siècle era (which challenged the stuffy morality of the Victorians through excess and decadence), his pieces confront the viewer with figures seemingly bored with the world around them. From naked men holding crocodiles to four-legged beasts devouring man, his pieces are full of conflicting imagery that isn’t often seen in contemporary art.
I’m not sure what exactly I expected before speaking with Mortimer—possibly a grizzled 80-year-old man whom had lived on the sea for decades—but it certainly wasn’t a modestly self-assured 26-year-old who takes great pleasure in a simple walk.
Mila Pantovich: In looking at your work, I pictured someone a lot older…
James Mortimer: People always think I’m 70 or something, it’s very strange. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.
MP: How did you start out and when did you realize that being a working artist was a reality?
JM: It was a very gradual process and…about two years ago I was finally doing it full time. It was more like a sense of relief. You don’t really realize and then you look and think ‘Oh, actually I’m doing this full time. That’s nice.’ As I’ve always been painting, drawing and sculpting, it’s just been a continuous thing.
MP: Do you have any sort of a process in terms of inspiration, conception and execution?
JM: I have lots of things to get me going. I go on lots of walks and do lots of sketching. More often than not an idea will come along when I’m just sort of sitting down doing nothing, like on a train. Then I’ll do lots of drawings and think about how big I want to make it…and more or less work 9-5 in my studio. Painting is such a slow methodical process and it gets very detailed. You have to think [very] carefully about what you’re doing. That will take a couple of weeks, so that’s not the most exciting part of it. The most exciting part is the drawing. And then when it’s done, you just sort of know it’s done.
MP: What I love about your work is that each piece has a calm, yet tense, beauty to it, regardless of the subject matter. Who are some of your inspirations in terms of other artists?
JM: Everyone. I look at everything and try to take it all in. But my two favorites are Michelangelo and Picasso. They painted, sculpted [and] drew everything, and had a lot of energy. The artist who’s alive who I like most is Anselm Kiefer. Otherwise, lots of artists. It depends on the day. It could be Hieronymus Bosch one day and Lucian Freud another.
MP: I read that you’re working on a large panel, similar to The Garden of Earthly Delights.
JM: It’s about seven feet long and five feet tall. It’s a commission for someone in London, this woman who has this very large house. When I said I wanted to paint the Garden of Eden, she was very excited about it. She said, “Would you do it big??” And I said, “Yeah, I’d want to do it big….like seven feet long.” And she said, “I will send you a seven-foot-long canvas.” Then a week later, it arrived and so I’ve been working on that. I can’t wait to see it finished. Hopefully she’ll like it, and if she doesn’t, I’ll like it.
MP: How do you see your style evolving in the future or how would you like it to?
JM: I think I’ve been trying to make it more precise…a certain sharpness. I think that’s the main thing that’s been changing. I just go from one piece to the next and do it one step at a time, and then when you look back at it, there’s this evolution. But when you’re working on it very slowly and steadily, you don’t feel like anything’s happening. I think they’re getting more precise and refined maybe. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing because I quite like paintings that are quite rough looking.
MP: Is there a type of art that you would like to experiment with?
JM: I’d love to do etchings. You can do prints and when you do…they all come out a bit differently and have a different patina. That would be something I’d like to do.
MP: Many of the subjects in your images seem so bored and unimpressed by their surroundings; so what excites you?
JM: Everything. I love going for walks and just enjoying the outside, so anything in the countryside. Climbing mountains, going through woods, camping [and] swimming in rivers…that sort of thing. I think if I look back, that’s when I’m having the nicest time. And going to a pub, sitting in bars with friends and drinking. I think that’s quite inspiring in a way; that’s when people do a lot of their most interesting thinking sometimes.
Just living life and traveling obviously is quite good. I think the boredom in traveling, you know, the sitting in trains and planes and doing a lot of waiting is quite helpful. Just letting your mind wander. As well as seeing new places. I don’t know how much sitting on the beach will inspire art, but I’d quite like to do that. I went to Costa Rica a few months ago and was just obsessed by all the palm trees. Just seeing all these big vegetables everywhere, it’s fantastic. So I just started sketching loads of palm trees and now I’ve painted lots of [them]. You never know what’s going to take your imagination.
MP: You’ve said that the more discomfort found in traveling, the better. What has been your most uncomfortably awkward traveling experience? Any destinations in mind for your next trip?
JM: I was in Mongolia with a friend and the woman in the tent went out and killed a goat, and then just sort of boiled its guts out for us and it made me really ill. It was the desert, but we were there in the winter and it was about -40 [Celsius] outside. I was so ill that I just crawled out into the desert and was just vomiting all over, in a t-shirt and long johns [in the] freezing cold, thinking, “I’m gonna die out here. Alone in the desert.” And then these dogs came out and just started eating my vomit, while I’m vomiting, and I thought, “This is the most horrible thing that has ever happened, but this will be a really good anecdote if I get back alive.”
MP: Something I really like about your work is that the figures appear as archetypes of the human body, so the viewer can transpose their own interpretation onto them.
JM: That’s very interesting; I don’t think anyone’s ever pointed that out before, but I’ve always thought that.
MP: What attracts you to another person, in any sense, and do you paint people from life?
JM: All sorts of things. If a person’s very beautiful, that’s very interesting immediately. And if a person’s very intelligent, that’s even better. It’s quite hard to find someone to have a really good conversation with. Otherwise, as long as they’re just enthusiastic—I hate people who are really pessimistic. Yeah, people who just love life or have an interesting way of looking at the world; funny people.
I’m not sure if I even do paint people from mind, because whenever I’ve tried painting people from life it never looks like them at all. I think my people are a little mixture of all sorts and maybe have a bit of me in them, though they don’t look like me at all. It’s just whatever emotion the painting needs to have, I think I make a face that suits that.
MP: You utilize animal imagery a lot; what is the meaning behind that?
JM: When you’re a child you draw a lot of animals; I remember drawing monkeys and crocodiles when I was really small. I’ve not really changed much. It can be quite symbolic I suppose, when you’ve got a nude woman with a big ape or something, looming over her. Man and beast and animal urges. And if you’ve got a man being eaten by a shark or something, it opens up all sorts of possibilities. You can’t just have paintings of people. And also, they’re quite beautiful, so it’s lovely to paint beautiful things.
MP: You also collect taxidermy…
JM: There were a couple pieces in my house growing up, a couple of birds. Then when I found out that you can actually buy these things when I was older, I thought that was the most fantastic thing in the world. I suppose nothing is more beautiful than nature and I’ve always collected things. As a kid you do, like sticks or rocks and dead butterflies, and so I wanted to collect something, anything other than stamps. I thought collecting dead animals would be a stylish pursuit. I quite like to shock people slightly…and it’s a bit like that scene in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective when he goes into the room of death. But they’re all from the Victorian times, so I don’t feel too guilty about it. It’s like a bit of history. I wouldn’t want anyone to go out and shoot anything now.
MP: Is there an animal you would like to add to your collection?
JM: A platypus. That’d be amazing. They’re just the weirdest things.
MP: If you could watch any artist (in any medium) work, who would it be and why?
JM: It would probably be Picasso, because he banged things out pretty fast. Also Anselm Kiefer, because he sets fire to his paintings. If he doesn’t like how things are going, he’ll put it outside in the rain or just shower it in dust. He’s the most interesting person to watch doing a painting, I think.
MP: You have a show right now, wrapping up at The Catto Gallery on December 4 in Hampstead, London; how’s it been going?
JM: Oh, that’s been going really well. I was finally able to exhibit paintings, sculptures and a big drawing [all together]. I suppose it all kind of links together and it’s nice to see the work out next to each other. When I started sculpting, the paintings started getting more sculptural. They’re more three dimensional now I think.
Almost all of the work [has] sold apart from one piece. [Boxers is] a very strange painting that I did of a man and a woman sort of hitting each other and they look very evenly matched. I think that’s the problem, because at first glance I think a lot of people think the woman’s a man. I think I must see women in a very unusual way…but I’m really happy with that painting. I also exhibited some sculptures and they’ve gone down well and we’re going to be turning them into bronzes in January. Me and the gallery are going to do it with a foundry near London.