Art review: ‘Justin Mortimer: Häftling’ at Mihai Nicodim Gallery


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The palette in Justin Mortimer’s recent oil paintings is Baroque Spanish, filtered through mid-19th century France and, perhaps, post-Civil War America. Dank, dark and dramatic, the thick, almost lovingly applied brushstrokes hold your attention, even as they yield the look of Stygian rooms momentarily illuminated by a lightning flash.

At Mihai Nicodim Gallery, the British artist’s Los Angeles solo debut offers grim but finally moving imagery. Take ‘Audition,’ a modest canvas in which a close-up of a bare and severely wounded leg is propped before a small mirror. Forget Cupid helping Venus to admire her transient loveliness in the reflection, which is what this pointed composition recalls. Here the mortality of the flesh has become an urgent matter.


That’s the case throughout the show’s six works, half quite large, which record ghastly or ominous events in seemingly abandoned buildings. Cadaverous naked bodies, one kneeling on a medical gurney, are strewn among trash bags. Ventilation hoses are hooked up to menacing machines. Power strips overloaded with extension cords trail off into darkness, while dirty tarps hang from clotheslines.

Mortimer uses bruised color to paint performances of isolation, decay and collapse. It’s easy to read them as substitutes for grand narratives of epic modern violence, but they feel more intensely personal than that. The show is titled ‘Häftling,’ a German word for prisoner, and in these works it’s the human body that seems to hold one hostage.

Mihai Nicodim Gallery, 3143 South La Cienega Blvd.,Culver City, (310) 838-8884, through May 7. Closed Sunday and Monday


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-- Christopher Knight