Here be dragons

Roger Mortimer's meticulous paintings are an otherwordly mix of luminescent colours, medieval manuscript imagery and gritty, contemporary texts.

Viewing the works of Roger Mortimer is akin to following Alice in her journey through the looking glass—all is not what it seems—but just when you think you’re on his wavelength, he goes off on another tangent, leaving you scrambling in his wake, frantically decoding his next set of visual cues.

And it’s the visual imagery of the past that Mortimer transplants into his art, segueing effortlessly from illustrated manuscripts to whalers’ scrimshaw, oriental silk paintings to the Book of Hours, and in his current body of work, to the mappae mundi and Portolan charts of medieval seafarers as they extended the margins of the known world. But it’s only on close examination that the illustrated manuscript becomes a Sickness Benefit application form, the scrimshaw text comes from his mother’s art history school textbook, the Book of Hours is transmogrified into a medieval lingerie brochure, and the precise calligraphy denoting the coastal ‘towns’ of the Portolan charts spells out dreary official jargon relating to an upcoming Environment Court hearing.

The precision and meticulousness of Mortimer’s paintings hark back to his childhood in New Plymouth, and earlier. “I can remember my engineer father doing the draughting for our house, which he designed, and his care and precision appealed to me,” says Mortimer. “I remember I had a book of profiles of old ships, which I’d carefully copy, then watercolour in. My great-grandfather was a Danish merchant seaman, and when he retired he took up painting—mainly ships—and he was a great painter of water, very good at rendering.”

Mortimer studied engineering after leaving school, and it wasn’t until ten years later at Teachers’ Training College that he returned to art—initially photography, and after purchasing an etching press, etching and printmaking. During a period in Australia in the early 1990s, where he studied at the Drama Action Centre (a physical theatre school), he began oil painting and continued painting on his return to New Zealand, living at Muriwai, where he concentrated on his other passion—surfing.

During this time he suffered a major health setback, developing Crohn’s disease, but was able to attend Elam School of Fine Arts, graduating with his Bachelor’s degree in 1999. He then approached newly established dealer, Ivan Anthony, and the following year held his first solo exhibition, e-llumination.

He explains the motivation behind many of his early works: “The first work I showed at Ivan’s was an Invalid Benefit Application form that mimicked the medieval illustrated manuscript format. For me it was a cleansing psychological process, transforming something I was reliant upon (social welfare), but unhappy with the fact I was in the situation—so I used humour to claim something back.”

The following year his exhibition Southern Collection Unit aimed a sharper projectile at another institution, this time the eponymous government ‘unit’ that was responsible for collecting child maintenance and arrears. At the time Mortimer was being pursued by the unit, who wanted money he didn’t owe them, and several of the paintings in this series depict whaling scenes in the Southern Ocean—initially with whales thrashing and carelessly smashing the whalers’ boats, and later, the thick-fleshed leviathans floating and dying, victims of the harpoon. These paintings are overlaid with the text of Mortimer’s correspondence with the agency.

But Mortimer’s irony—and intriguing imagery—has an evanescent and elusive quality, at times disquietingly personal, as his 2002 exhibition Madonna of the Shark portrayed. Upset that he hadn’t spoken at his mother’s funeral several years earlier, and feeling he had subconsciously avoided acknowledging her death, he wanted to comment on her life, as well as take an artistic swipe at another institution, Catholicism. Included in the works were Cistern Madonna (a toilet bowl, cistern and basin decorated with medieval designs and motifs), rosaries and necklaces made of ceramic pills and tablets, and a row of carved ceramic sharks’ teeth inscribed with the text from his mother’s school art book. The centre tooth depicted the Madonna, scrimshaw-style.

This introspection continued in his next exhibition, Letterstogina, where Mortimer transcribed the texts of letters he sent to Gina, now his partner. Rendered in gothic script, the text is overlaid on large paintings of the stamps on the letters’ envelopes. He explains the change from recording the depersonalised language of bureaucracy to more intimate texts. “They had been written while I was living at Muriwai, so when I painted them I was looking back at myself from the perspective of being in the relationship for 12 years”.

Since 2004 Mortimer’s odyssey through the history of art has taken many and varied turns, with some surprising bedfellows and mixed success. The Intimate Hours (2004) adopted the format of the Book of Hours (“The first books written primarily for women, they focused on the veneration of the Virgin Mary instead of the standard, male-oriented, Christian dogma of the time”), but married the format with unlikely contemporary source material. “I got a junk mail brochure through the post, and in it was a Bendon lingerie catalogue, and the idea appealed to me,” he says. So next to the image of Mary kneeling before an angel resplendent in bra and knickers, the gothic text advises, “underwire bra, x-xvi… panelled camisole… Gigi by Bendon, available in blue and white… xix dollars and xcv cents”. Just the ticket for the liberated Renaissance woman.

In his more recent paintings, landscape dominates the work. Initially he followed the stylised discipline of the oriental silk painters, using pale washes and delicate brush-strokes to render the landscape, with spindly dying trees, weathered stone outcrops and decorative borders, calligraphic text and oriental ‘chops’ (stamps). But deception lurks—the dying trees are cabbage trees and nikaus; the black stumps are pongas and the eroded hills are more Taranaki back-country than imperial China.

He has also returned to the sea. But the sperm and right whales of his earlier series are now accompanied by mythological sea-monsters; the whaling ships by a time-traveller’s flotilla of caravels, ironclads, super tankers and hunter-killer submarines. In his exhibition Apocrypha (at Wellington’s Bartley + Company Art last year) The Rapture depicts floes of lamington-pink icebergs – platforms for everything from mythical monsters and whales’ skulls to Waihopai spy-domes and WWII pill-boxes. The sea of roiling Hokusai waves erupts with more sea-monsters, whales and an armada of vessels straight from the pages of Boy’s Own Annual—and a swastika-emblazoned spacecraft swoops over the edge of the world. The rapture… world’s end… armageddon? Perhaps, but not as we know it. In another work, ABC, amongst the narwhals, U-boats and monsters floats a lonely surfer, unmistakeably Mortimer, powerless yet calm in the chaos that churns around him.

What draws Mortimer back to these medieval visual sources? Why does he link his contemporary vision with archaic imagery based on ignorance, superstition and fear? He observes, “We still have the same brains as when we were eating nuts in trees. Though we have now developed iPhones and Apple Macs, our lives are still governed by the same basic themes as in medieval times. I feel that imagination had a greater reign in the so-called Dark Ages, while today science has taken away much of the mystery. We still have the same fears as we did back then, and similar inhumanities are still going on. The visual language of the Middle Ages was particularly creative, and really appeals to me.”

Mortimer’s current paintings exhibit a stronger, more confident line, both visual and mimetic. The overlaid text of his earlier works has been pared back to a minimal level, and his codex is a mere coastal cipher on his Portolan charts, though the locations—Ahipara, Whale Bay, Manaia – echo favourite surfing spots rather than the unknown destinations of da Gama, Diaz or Vespucci 500 years earlier. Similarly, the places of worship echo Ratana not Byzantium; the creatures are moa and sheep-like, not unicorns or chimaeras.

So how does Mortimer see his work in the context of contemporary art—the world of painting machines, arte povera, kinetic art and new media? Is he the lone surfer floating in a confused sea of creativity and self-expression?

“I’m enjoying the process; I’m engaged with it; I know what I’m doing. You should be given something from the work, at a very primary visual level. A lot of art today doesn’t do this—you’re asked to work to understand first, whereas I feel art should give something before reasoning is engaged. You should be able to see, and then ask questions.”

Header image: Roger Mortimer, Manaia, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 150 cm

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