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Roger Mortimer Interview

Forum > Rants

by dollyhaze
Article of the Month November 2005

I met Roger at his show "Supercover" at Brooke Gifford's in Christchurch about a month ago. We went to the Dux for a couple of beers and spoke a little about his work. The conversation culminated a month later in a phone interview from Auckland.

Speaking to Roger about his work was intensely illuminating. Throughout the interview, it came across very clearly that he had chosen his passion as his work and the two were inexorably intertwined. Not very many of us have the courage to follow our passions in our work but with Roger, it is clear that we reap the benefits when we do follow our hearts. There is a reverberating aspect of familial history in Roger's work that speaks of terra ancestral as much as the commercial text shows us a way to situate ourselves within the old historical discourse. All of his work blends contemporaneity and antiquity in such a way as to confront the past significantly. All my articulations fall short of the artist and his work. Roger reminded me of why it is necessary to follow our exaltations because every other choice remains inadequate.

Roger Mortimer Interview 3/11/05

interview conducted by Melissa Lam

Roger Mortimer is currently building a carport out of a telephone poles and a tarp. He traded some guys a case of beer for two telephone poles they were uprooting and bringing to the dump. He is using the poles as a structural foundation for his new carport. It's been a very busy weekend.How would you describe your painting?

I guess the first thing that comes to my head is that they are exorcisms. The first painting was a Sickness Benefit Application form that I chose to illuminate. My second show was based on the legal correspondence with the Department of Social Welfare- they wanted my money at the time. And underneath it all was all guilt about not being there when my daughter was growing up. So it was intensely personal. . .

Do you believe your personal relationships are mediated by the state? Is that why you turn such items as your power bills into medieval manuscripts into a time where all life was mediated by the state explicitly? "Maintenance" seems to reflect this.

That was a surfboard that was written on. I did another surfboard
recently about my son and surfing.
These were two things that were separate in my life that were significant to me. One thing was that I was very into surfing-so is my son- and we were making up for lost ground in a way. I am very inspired by his surfing in a way. I can't quite explain it. The work is a mix-up of me being into surfing in a way, also mixed up with my son's love of surfing. And it's also about estrangement, and now being closer. And how there is junk mail.

Why Medieval manuscripts/style paintings? Do you do research on the life and images?

I don't look at painting as much but at manuscripts. I trawl through the internet and the library in a way. I am moved by something about it. I've always loved it- the calligraphy, the simple images, the structure of the page, the format used...

What do you mean?

Just how the text and image are structured and used. How each individual has played a part in making the illustrative book. There's this big genre of books that are semi-factory like but at the same point, someone has created them and has put something of themselves in. This gave them a lot of permission to do stuff that was unrelated. Rude scenes, bums, marginalia mixed in with Old Testament verse carefully written at the same time. So there was a kind of juxtaposition between the mundane and the profound.

Kind of like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales?

Yes, a lot of his tales are quite racy and rude aren't they? A lot of farting and lewd scenes…

Yet they are put on a pedestal. Father of English Literature and all that.

I've been criticised about how it was a waste of time painting and reading such things.

So, are a lot of your everyday objects connected to your art? Do you collect flyers, bills, ads all in case it is useful or relevant later?

Well the reason I decided to use ads were because they were the first thing that came through the letterbox. Our letterbox is full everyday. I find it obscene. There are a whole lot of things going on here. I have a little sign on the box that says "Take care of the earth-no junk mail." No one takes notice of it. I accept this stuff because it is like a reality check in a way of what madness is going on. I think that it is very apocalyptic in a way, each time that I see it. I could have gone further with this and actually done an apocalypse--there is a genre of medieval manuscripts that are solely written about the

I once did an illumination of a phonebook but no one got to see it…

What happened to it?

It went straight into a private collection. I did the Mortimers in the phone book. But what I did with that was start with 1066 when the Domesday Book was published and did a history beginning from that point. I then moved on to my early ancestors and then to my great grandfathers and then to my grandfathers, and then to my fathers and me.

The reason I got into this track was because it is significant to us because we are kind of very new here. Maybe the younger people don't realize it but as I have gotten older, it's become more important, I don t know. Especially for the European New Zealanders-it's like we are very new here. I haven't been overseas at all; I haven't been to Europe or to places where you have a sense of your place or belonging over time. And I think that my history is part of being brought up in a very strict Catholic primary school. The Latin iconography that I was exposed to and the Catholic ritual solidified me as a boy and it completely changed when it switched into English and became banal. The chanting in Latin really affected me in a way that I can't describe. That somehow there was a sense of the other or something completely other. The illuminated texts are really influenced by this personal background

Who were your early influences in painting and how did you get started?

I got my wife to warm me up for the interview. I knew you were going to ask something like that so I got to thinking a little about it [laugh]. When I was little, I used to really love writing. I remember when I was taught writing I got so much pleasure from the angle and the slant of the letters, and how much I loved writing and letters when I was seven years old. I wasn't exposed to painting in a sense but I think my father loved painting. He had a natural love of music and painting in his system but he didn't get to experience it enough. He couldn't express it openly in his life though. So somehow, I got the feeling that painting was very important.

Who do you admire painting at the moment out of your contemporaries? Or artists that are currently practicing?

Hmmm… I really admire Tony [De Lautour]'s work. Tony's "Hot Rod" painting. I like the boganness of it. There is something about his process that I like. There is something in the piece where I can imagine him painting that I like. And I'm a great admirer of Bill Hammond of course, he seems to have refined his painting in a sense. There seems to be a gap that is between his average stuff and his brilliant stuff. He's refined something and has the essence of something happening which I think is the sign of someone really getting it.

How important is the dealer that you choose in terms of your practice and the guiding of your career?

I've only had Ivan Anthony. And Judy [Gifford] in Christchurch of course but mainly Ivan all the way through. I think he's got an idea of what work he likes in terms of his personal taste. And his response to my work has affected and guided me in it.

How difficult is it for a good artist to support themselves based solely through the selling of their craft?

I can speak for myself and say that it is distinctly hard. In a place like New Zealand, it is very rare. I know a guy that lives at the beach and he is just painting trees and landscape. And he has a great big house at the beach.

But isn't there a difference between art that decorates your living room and true aesthetic art?

Yes. I'm just astonished at how much decorative art makes.

Do you believe in government funding for the arts

I don't really have a strong response to this. Funding should be targeted to the hundred artists that are doing something worthwhile. Rather than the broad-spectrum approach. I didn't get very much funding for my art. I went to art school but that was very late in my career.

I've always been an artist just busting to go. And in a way, art school was just a way to get some confidence. But I was very naïve to the art world and its machinations. And as soon as I got into the Uni, I felt overwhelmed. And I think that we are all highly critical of ourselves and I thought art school was a way to find freedom. When I got there, I found that art school wasn't about that and it was about making theoretical signs of it and not it itself. I think the most important thing I did at school was doing the art history papers. I think it's very important to situate yourself and get a sense of what was practice and where you are coming from. I might not do enough of that. My particular method of working is to extract it from myself.

What did you think of your opening in Christchurch? Was it remarkably different than your openings usually in Auckland?

My health is very fragile in a sense. Getting through everyday was a mission. Travelling at all was difficult and getting to Christchurch for the opening was exhausting. It was very nourishing however, just to come down and meet new people like you and Lee and just participate and party a little bit.

One more thing…I searched your name and this came up…

In about 1330 during the Early Renaissance, King Edward II was murdered by the lover of his estranged Queen Isabella, a Sir Roger Mortimer. This biography of 14th century England's evil genius offers a new and controversial theory regarding the fate of Edward II.

[General laughter]. I have that book! There have been a lot of famous Roger Mortimer villains in history. It's very appropriate isn't it?

Pictures courtesy of Roger Mortimer. More can be found at the Trust Waikato Contemporary Art Award Website - AB


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5 articles & 165 comments since 24 Nov 2005
good interview, thanks

This made me wonder if Bill hammonds work is considered by many if any to be decorative ?
7 articles & 27 comments since 30 Jul 2005
BIll Hammond

Hi Liz,

I would be interested in knowing your opinion on why Bill Hammond's work might be considered decorative art. Personally, I feel as if we need to at least make a distinction between his early work, his bird paintings and the latest bird portraiture stuff that was just shown at Judy's.

Please refer to Roger [Mortimer]'s comments on Bill Hammond about the essence of something happening and "the sign of someone really getting it." I think he's dead right.

Anyway, would be interested to see your in depth opinion on the subject.

glad you enjoyed the interview.
5 articles & 165 comments since 24 Nov 2005
Hi Dolly

What made me think that was Rogers comment "Yes. I'm just astonished at how much decorative art makes"
He paints birds, he has always painted birds, and I'm starting to think it's the same birds ! when I see Hammonds work, and I admit to not seeing the last show, I see beautiful painting and use of design, colour etc, but not a lot more. I think of that as decorative. Just like some landscape painters who paint the same scenes over and over again, the likes seen at Fishers gallery in Riccarton. In my mind Bill Hammond is on the gravy train, and that's not a bad or good thing as far as I'm concerned, it's just that I cant see his work as being artisticly important in any way.
7 articles & 27 comments since 30 Jul 2005
no not really


bill hammond may be on the gravy train. but he is on there for a reason. the birds are fucking beautiful. they just are. maybe they have become too beautiful...especially with his latest show at judy's but his main body of work is truly alien and strange. this isn't mainstream it's making mainstream gorgeous and different. I think that's what he does, and that's the feeling I get when I see it.
ROger's right when he says he is really getting it. Its; that negative capability feeling we all want and that you get in really good paintings...
Definitely not Fishers.
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