Artist on the rise James Mortimer has received a lot of critical acclaim as well as a certain amount of controversy. He’s been described as ‘Dutch master meets Oscar Wilde meets Pete Doherty’. Here, he interviews himself.
Hello Me. Let’s start this self interview with a little about how you start your day. Breakfast?
A large bowl of porridge is the only thing that gets my juices flowing in the mornings. Fill one pint glass to the brim with oats, mix that with a pint and a bit of water, bring to the boil, then add a bit of milk (but not too much – it’s porridge, not milk pudding). It should only be stirred with a spurtle and must be eaten within five minutes before it forms into a solid mass.
What’s the first painting you ever sold? How much did you get? What did you spend it on?
The first painting I ever sold was to my art teacher when I was fifteen. She was quite an aggressive woman who did not suffer fools gladly, but she took a liking to me and bought a big painting I did of a beach scene for £30 – I spent that on a bike. I was later informed that she hung the painting in her bedroom.
Always Michelangelo. The master of drawing, painting, and sculpting, still unsurpassed to this day. I also love the fact that he was an extremely angry little man who never washed.
Where do you usually come up with ideas?
Like a lot of people, my best ideas come to me when I’m in the smallest room of the house, in my less guarded moments. There’s no telling why that is but I really should get around to putting a desk in there.
Why are people always being eaten alive in your paintings and drawings?
That’s always been an obsession of mine. Even as a child I was always drawing people being eaten alive, though at that time it was usually by dinosaurs. It may be down to to some sort of Freudian oral fixation, though mainly I just find the whole image amusing and absurd.
But I am terrified of swimming in the sea, for fear of sharks, and I remember hearing somewhere that the fear of sharks is a manifestation of a fear of castration and/or of women, with the shark’s mouth symbolising the vagina dentata. So that may be it. Although personally I think the scariest aspect of a shark’s mouth is the fact that it’s got a shark attached to it and it’s going to kill me.
Favourite animal, food and flower?
Giraffes, shellfish and sunflowers.
Why are your paintings becoming more aggressive?
A lot of it is me painting to vent my various petty frustrations – my recent artistic response to a feud with a loud neighbour was to paint a man being savaged by lions. It’s very cathartic. But I also to make raw visceral work which titillates and surprises people, and I think nothing does that quite so well as scenes of blood and horror, especially if you manage to make them disarmingly beautiful at the same time.
Do you paint specific people?
I don’t paint people from life – whenever I do a face it’s from out of nowhere and will be the type of face which I think fits the mood of the painting. I’ve tried to paint from life but I’m hopeless at it for some reason.
Do you have any rituals?
In fact I do. Before I start a project I like to go out and buy myself a Lobster, or maybe an octopus – it depends, but it must be seafood – along with a nice bottle of something and a large cigar. I’ll getting through that in an afternoon, and by the end of it I’ll usually have some idea of the direction my work should go in. It’s most important to relax occasionally.
What’s the longest you’ve ever painted for in one go without rest?
I always go by Marc Chagall’s dictum, “You must paint until your fingers bleed or you collapse from exhaustion.”
A couple of years ago I had an exhibition in Italy with a very tight deadline and the only way I could finish everything on time was to work without rest for 48 hours, doing two all-nighters in a row.
I drank huge amounts of red bull and black coffee washed down with pro plus tablets, and by the end of it I had the shakes and the walls were moving. Afterwards I slept for a day and could barely use my hand, but I got the job done and the work I made ended up being very interesting.
What scares you most?
Sharks and spiders.
You seem to be quite fond of Eastern Europe, what is your favourite Iron Curtain destination?
The Ukraine. I went there when I was 17 with a very irresponsible friend of mine for six weeks. The best part was the Crimea (pre-conflict obviously), which in the summer is a desert. We arrived at somewhere called Novi Sviat in the middle of the night and tried to camp in the bush, but large insects crawled into our sleeping bags so we waited for morning outside an abandoned Soviet building. We tried to sleep there too, but tarantulas kept running past us with their front legs held aggressively in the air, it was horrible.
At sunrise we walked to a town called Sudak followed by a stray dog, and came to a bus station in the desert. There were just some babushkas and a gypsy man with a monkey on his shoulder which I vividly remember threw the shells of its sunflower seeds at me. We got on a bus and arrived in a town on the black sea called Koktebel, where we camped for a week on a nudist beach full of attractive Russians. It was beautiful – on the beach were children who walked along selling cakes, dried fish, and cigarettes; you could buy watermelons in the market for about twenty pence, and the beer was cheaper than fresh water.
There’s a bit of a tropical theme in this recent body of work. What’s that all about?
I went to Latin America a few months ago to see the jungles. I’ve a very romantic idea of the tropics mainly from being a child and reading Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, King Solomon’s Mines, all that lot – the tropics as they should be, not as they are.
It was the palm trees especially that reawakened my love of all things exotic and piratical. I’d never noticed before just how elegantly constructed the palm tree is: its precision and orderliness, its symmetry, the graceful curve of its fronds and the drooping of its profuse fruits. They’re a complete pain in the arse to paint of course but I think I got there in the end.
You are showing some sculptures in your new exhibition. One sculpture of a crocodile’s head looks like it was tricky to make, did you have any difficulties with it perhaps?
Funny you should ask that. The one you see is my second attempt. The first one shattered to a thousand pieces for no reason moments after I finished it and had gathered everyone in the studio around to take a look. I am not easily defeated (though I did fly into a rage), so I was quick to start another one, and this one thankfully survived.
On a more serious note, what sensible advice would you give to anyone wishing to cultivate a career in art?
Ahh, the thorny subject of selling yourself. It’s slightly different for everyone, but there is a very good book called How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, by Caroll Michels, with many hints and tips. I highly recommend it.
But the best advice I have for approaching a gallery (or anyone) with your work is simply to have a nice A4 catalogue printed with your best pieces in chronological order, with a short bio and a cover letter. Very few people do this but it’s by far the easiest way for anybody to look at your work. Many people send out CDs or emails and I’m told those are very fiddly and annoying.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
From my late Grandmother: “Never lend a book. You see the books on this shelf here? All these are borrowed.”
James Mortimer is exhibiting at The Catto Gallery from 19th November, 2015.