James Mortimer’s solo show of his paintings at the Catto Gallery in London has made such an impact that Independent Arts Critic Charlotte Cripps dubbed James as the “One To Watch” in the UK art scene. We asked the artist several questions on his life and his art.
Can you tell us about your recent show at the Catto Gallery in Hampstead?
It was a series of 15 paintings I made over a year, plus a few older sculptures. I had a lot of annoying things happen to me that year, nothing very serious, but the art always reflects my mood so the paintings ended up with quite an aggressive edge to them. I was very pleased with the work but the effect of them all on display in one go was a tad ominous, even for me.
You have quite a diverse portfolio of works. What is your inspiration? Do you decide on the subject before the work is made or spontaneously, during the act of creation?
It’s a lot of different things coming together – you go off and live life and that resolves itself into art in some unconscious process. Mainly you’ll just be sitting not thinking about anything, and an idea will float out of nowhere, then you can scribble away in a sketchbook – that’s the most creative part for me.
If you had to choose between sculpture or painting, which would you choose and why?
Each is its own thing, but I’d throw out both and go with drawing, which is the truest art form and what links them all. Michaelangelo’s advice to any aspiring painter or sculptor was “draw, draw, draw”.
A lot of contemporary art revolves around the conceptual. Do you think the tide will turn against an appreciation of art that’s unpinned by great skill?
Well with conceptual art you have to be very clever indeed to do it right. But nowadays I get the impression that people are a bit sick and tired of it all really – they want to see something that’s a feast for the eyes.
How important is it for the artist – independently of the gallery – to brand themselves, be it conceptually or stylistically etc.?
I hate that idea, although having a style and ethos is important. But versatility’s important too, and with great artists their work changes as their tastes and abilities do, their art reflecting their various moods. Imagine spending an entire career banging out the one idea, ad nauseam.
What advice would you give to emerging artists (and those who do not currently have a commercial platform)?
Best to start by taking every job that comes along, no matter how lowly. Also a very good thing to do is to print out a swish catalogue of your work and hand that round. It’s the easiest way to view a portfolio, and people don’t usually throw things like that away – so you never know where it might end up.
What, in your opinion, makes an artist great?
Great artists always have a sort of burning, grim determination, some kind of longing to find an unknown ideal. In my opinion they’re always weirdos who do their own thing for their own satisfaction, but on a daring scale and to a high intellectual standard.
Which artist, living or dead, would you most like to have known and why?
Michaelangelo, as he was probably the greatest and most versatile artist who ever lived. I also like the fact that apparently he was an angry, pugnacious little man who never washed and who got into bitter feuds with everyone. The short biography of him in Lives of the Artists by Vasari (who knew him personally) is unintentionally hilarious.
Oh yes, we should always be challenging peoples’ hang-ups. The most outrageous person I ever met was the late artist Sebastian Horsley, who had himself crucified for art, slept with a thousand prostitutes, swam with sharks and went around in large top hats of his own design. There really aren’t enough – or perhaps any? – people like that around these days.
Are there any future projects/works/exhibitions you’d like to share with us?
My next exhibition is a new series of paintings in a mixed show at the James Freeman Gallery, from September. But aside from that I’m quite excited about an enormous vase I’ve got on the go – it’s a big architectural thing decorated with monsters and modelled nude figures riding on animals, with snakes for handles – it’s all very symbolic.