When we first spoke to Bath-based painter and sculptor James Mortimer about meeting with him, he was stranded in the deep jungle of Indonesia by an erupting volcano. A few weeks later we caught up with him at his quirky home and studio located in The Circus, one of the architectural landmarks in the city of Bath, where James treated us to an opulent glimpse into his eccentric life and spoke with eminent grace about his fascination with the exotic life he encountered on his many voyages, his search for deeply human traits in the animal kingdom and his provocative style that challenges the viewer with a fair amount of surrealism, cynicism and savagery.
Many dramatic events are evidently taking place in Mortimer’s universe, and what we love about the sophisticated elegance of his work is how the beautiful, almost surreal simplicity of the animal world ‒ with its inherent instinctive interactions and primal urges ‒ makes possible the immoral richness and outlandish decadence of the human world. By creating a visual language that explores the ephemeral border that separates humanity from animality in such a way that they become ever more intertwined, James Mortimer’s work is a rare example of mapping a type of reality that can only exist in a world that does not yet exist, a diaphanous world marked equally by hope and anguish, where the violent outburst of reason meets the harmonious innocence of instinct.
For those who do not know you, who is James Mortimer?
I’m best known as a painter, and I also sculpt and do a lot of drawing. I grew up in Swindon, which isn’t very nice, and currently live in Bath, which is very nice. I like to travel, and am currently writing this from the steaming jungles of Indonesia.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Millennium New Year's Eve, and my getting punched in the face while dressed as the Angel of the North. We were at the celebrations on the Tyneside in Newcastle, and my father and I were in a double-height costume with me on his shoulders holding out a huge pair of wings made of cloth and bamboo. It was very impressive. But at some point it all went wrong, and as we walked through the crowd I looked down and a random geordie lamped me square in the face ‒ I think he may have thought I was a mannequin or something, and not a ten year old boy. Blood everywhere. But my father hadn’t noticed anything so he carried on, and I ended up being marched through the crowd with my arms spread out fastened to the bamboo wings, with blood pouring down my face ‒ like some kind of weird crucifixion. Sounds horrible but even I remember thinking it was sort of funny at the time.
Your paintings introduce the viewer to subversive yet diaphanous scenes wherein humans appear to push the limits of humanity by engaging in decadent, ambiguous and at times violent interactions with the animal kingdom, and thus becoming some sort of hybrid animals themselves. Can the viewer interpret this as a post-humanist statement?
No, I’d say my art is very much humanist if anything. When it comes to depicting animals I think it falls in with that very ancient tradition of metaphors for perfectly natural and deeply human traits. The idea that we’re all animals driven by basic impulses, that deep down we’re all the same as one another with the same mores and peccadilloes.
I mean only the other day I was watching some monkeys going about their business in the forest over here, and by-and-large they seemed to act and interact much the same way as we do ‒ the only difference being that if a human went about behaving that way they’d quickly get an ASBO. And many people do get ASBOs.
In Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze & Guattari said that “Writers are sorcerers because they experience the animal as the only population before which they are responsible”. How do you relate to that as an artist? What do you feel you are most responsible for?
I think the only responsibility the artist has is to themselves and to the artwork, if that’s not too pretentious. It’s a very personal, solipsistic journey, and I think a lot of artists must suffer from at least a minor god complex ‒ but it’s probably healthier to channel it into art than, say, becoming a serial killer.
Similar to being a sorcerer though, artists and musicians have always seen what they do as coming from outside of themselves in some way ‒ the concept of the muse. So the responsibility is similar to taking up holy orders, and your role is to act as some kind of conduit for the vibrations of the universe, to capture the sublime. Similar to the Jungian idea of the universal consciousness, which has the same effect without being quite as mystical.
But also I think it’s just one of those deep, primal urges that doesn’t need any reasoning ‒ put a person in a room long enough and soon they’ll start drumming on a table or doodling shapes with whatever’s to hand ‒ we’re all naturally creative. There just seems to be something in certain people that makes them push it a bit further than is strictly necessary.
The house ‒ burning or not, experienced from the inside or seen from a distance ‒ is a hauntingly recurring element in your paintings. What does it mean to you and where do you feel most at home?
Well I’m not sure why I like painting houses on fire ‒ that’s probably just down to a bit of pyromania on my part.
I obsessively collect things, so I’m most at home wherever my possessions are ‒ where I live now. My studio is also in the house, so it’s where I spend almost all of my time.
But I’ve noticed I seem to keep painting houses kind of the way a child does ‒ usually square with a triangle roof, with a tree next to it and maybe some figures standing in front. That basic image ‒ The House ‒ must be something deeply ingrained in the human psyche, particularly seeing as I grew up in a terrace with no trees next to it at all.
For Magritte, the painting is a metaphor about how we see, about the reality of appearances or the appearance of reality. How would you describe your relationship with reality and the outside world?
Well, despite the way I go about my life I think I have a very grounded relationship with reality. Saying that, artists have always relied on having a fertile inner life to make their work grow, and like many people I have a very developed inner world.
But that’s not to say it’s about losing yourself in some kind of mushy fantasy land ‒ it’s more the idea that people can’t cope with too much reality and that we need the surrealism of dreams to make sense of daily life and stop us losing our minds.
When I do use surrealist imagery or paint these imagined landscapes, it’s always as a highly ordered interpretation of the world going on around me ‒ far from being a form of escapism, the result should be to force the viewer back to reality even more violently than beforehand.
What metaphor would best describe how you feel when you paint?
Most of the time painting is quite a mindless task, and I don’t really feel anything. It’s very automatic and instinctive, so while I’m doing it I usually listen to the radio and think about other things. In that sense it’s almost like a sort of dance.
The only relatively emotional part is during the first stage, when an idea is coming to you and you’re sketching ideas furiously ‒ the best analogy for that would be that you’ve being possessed by the devil or something like that.
What objects or creatures appear most often in your dreams?
I’m always being chased in my dreams, and it’s mostly always by: zombies, dogs, apes (as in ‘Planet of the Apes’), and dinosaurs. I think we can safely blame the kinds of films I watched as a child for that one.
Is there a question you wish people would ask you more often about your work?
I’m very bad at answering questions about the work, but I’m not often asked how things are made or certain effects achieved, and that’s quite interesting to talk about ‒ they take quite a bit of technical rigmarole to do after all.
What was the best piece of advice you have ever received?
“Never lend a book ‒ you see the books over here? All these are borrowed.”
You work from your studio in Bath. How does the city influence you creatively?
It’s very leafy and architectural, which is what I like, and I need a bit of peace and quiet to work. But other than that if I am influenced it’s not very conscious. I think my approach is quite magpie-like, picking up on anything that strikes a chord but ignoring everything else ‒ otherwise my years in Swindon would have left quite a black mark on my work indeed.
What do you do or where do you go when you want to relax or get inspired?
Well, I like to travel, but I seem to have quite bad luck. As I’m writing this I’m sat in a lodge in Indonesia, where I’ve gone to see the jungles. It’s a spectacular place with fascinating wildlife, but I’ve been stranded a week longer than planned by the volcano erupting and grounding all the planes. I wouldn’t think much of it but the same thing has happened to me twice before ‒ in Costa Rica a couple of years ago, and then the Icelandic ash cloud before that.
I seem to set these volcanoes off somehow, I don’t know why.
What are you working on at the moment?
Sketching the jungle. But when I’m back there’s a big painting I want to start ‒ I should probably put a volcano in it.
And now a question from Éric Poindron’s Weird Questionnaire: What goes on in tunnels?
I have been in a lot of tunnels, but I didn’t know what was going on in them.
Can you recommend us:
A book: Against Nature, Joris-Karl Huysmans
A song: The Monster Mash, The Bonzos
A film: The Holy Mountain, 1973
Thank you, James for the insight into your personal and creative realm.