Annexed by Russia in 1782 during the reign of Catherine the Great, Sevastopol became an important naval base to the Russian Black Sea Fleet only to fall decades later to allied British, French, and Turkish troops during the Crimean War (1853–56) after a long, protracted siege that lasted eleven months. During the existence of the Soviet Union, the famous fortress city was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic and remained under the control of independent Ukraine after the Soviet collapse in 1991.
Today, it is a federal city within the Crimean Federal District that has recently been the lynchpin of a struggle between Ukraine’s new leaders and those loyal to the Russian Federation. Its current political status as a de facto territory of Russia remains internationally unrecognized after a closed referendum. Often mired in territorial dispute since its founding, Sevastopol has a legacy of enduring conflict and violence.
It seems fitting that Sevastopol, by British artist Justin Mortimer at Future Perfect gallery, is a series of paintings examining the visual discourse of resistance where key ideas—such as dissent, protest, and the power of the individual against the state—are represented by forms that teeter between the abstract and the concrete. Mortimer’s canvases exhibit a contradictory aesthetic sensibility; they are elegant and painterly but also theatrical and distorted, driven by an unmistakable undercurrent of hostility and anger.
Working from collaged photographs gleaned from the Internet or found in secondhand books, Mortimer reproduces and reappropriates them on canvas after first assembling them into a digital collage on his computer. The artist distresses his surfaces with rags and newspapers, consequently erasing the original contexts in which the photographs appear through brushstrokes that obscure rather than define. Bending forward, a solitary, half-naked figure wrapped in a sheet is keeling over, thrusting its head into bright orange flame against a bunch of coniferous trees typically found in the forests occupying the higher latitudes of the world. Farther back, the forest fades into indistinct boundaries of washed-out greens, browns, and pink against a dull blue sky dotted with clouds. Yet the muted protest of the individual here, in Nes Ziona (2014), is sharply contained within a generic setting that eschews any attempt at identifying specific political situations or partisan leanings, presenting a visual puzzle of unvocalized conflict.
Stripped of context, each work itself becomes an evocative site of conflict where protests are seen but not heard, like a video permanently put on mute. Clad in balaclavas, the figures in Joker (2014) are locked in the motions of defiance and confrontation, teetering on the brink of violence threatening to erupt. Framed by an innocuous washing line—a symbol of generic suburbia—in the foreground, the first figure stands with hands outstretched, clad in a black T-shirt with the face of Batman’s Joker as his symbol of rebellion. Behind him, the second figure’s pose of apparent submission underscores the never-ending cycle of revolt and suppression. Like Joker, Jabalya (2014) captures a moment during a demonstration or a strike as a person holds up a protest placard against a shadowy background. The placard obscures the protestor’s face; even the words on the sign are blurred, suggesting that the language of protest is better understood when visually represented rather than spoken.
Yet can a work of art ever be freed of its context? The presence of purposefully vague morsels of interpretive cues—the specific use of color, shapes, and forms, for instance—is a seductive invitation to draw parallels between the painted figures and their referents, despite Mortimer’s adamant insistence that it is the individual’s subjective experiences that construct meaning and context from his works. Take, for example, the compelling parallels that could be drawn between the balaclava-clad figures in Hijab I (2014) and the trademark colored masks worn by protestors at the Pussy Riot demonstrations in 2012.
But that is the viewer filling in the blanks, as Mortimer would point out, eagerly foisting contextual readings onto his canvases, indulging the basic human tendency to scratch beneath the surface and participate—whether willingly or unwillingly—in a sensational, sordid narrative. The last laugh is his: forced into an uncomfortably voyeuristic role, suddenly we become the very figures in his canvases, complicit in the artist’s narrative of protest and resistance.
Justin Mortimer: Sevastopol is on view at Future Perfect at the Gillman Barracks in Singapore through February 22, 2015.