If one quality of a great artist is fearlessness—and it is—Dylan Mortimer has it in spades. He’s demonstrated it from the start of his career, when in 2003 he constructed a prayer booth and installed it in a heavily-trafficked park in New York City. It looked very much like a real phone booth, except that it had a pull-down kneeler and was open to anyone who wanted to pray. People used it.
New Yorkers are pretty much shock-proof, but Prayer Booth caused a ruckus there and other places it was exhibited. The world of contemporary art typically eschews anything that deals with outright depictions of faith, but in the case of Prayer Booth, the conceptual wit and bravado of the piece garnered rave reviews. The international publicity included some real haters, but, as Mortimer said in a recent interview, “a lot of agnostics really liked the work, while Evangelicals were the most put off.”
Since then, in gallery and museum shows across the country, Mortimer has continued to borrow from the blatancy of pop culture and its signage to assert his message-oriented art, pairing hip hop and rap with verses from the Psalms, installing plastic Bible dispensers next to newspaper stands, and creating a giant automated halo that descends from the ceiling when anyone stands under it.
Mortimer’s new exhibit, “Cure,” relates visually to his earlier shows. His wall works are mural-sized and appear steroidal (they’re actually mounted on foam core). Many have automated lighting systems pulsing with kinetic energy. As a sculptor Mortimer has become ever more adroit—with all the glitter and flashing lights his works are as visually stimulating and shamelessly aggressive a neon sign promoting a casino, or stained-glass windows in a Vegas wedding chapel. Does art have a right to be this much fun?
Conceptually, Mortimer’s work has become more layered, complex and gutsy. Mortimer is an ordained minister and his art always notes his religiosity. He also has cystic fibrosis, and has dealt with its many health challenges since birth. Now 37, Mortimer documents his struggle with this disease in “Cure,” making himself not only professionally vulnerable, as with his earlier, testamental, work, but personally as well. Mortimer usually includes text in his art, but there are only images in this show and they are enough.
I Want More Air is a very large, stunning depiction of bronchial tubes, covered in red glitter, that also resemble trees, tributaries, or a maze. The bronchial tubes/tree imagery appears in a number of works, including Air Max, where this time they are attached to a massive Nike sneaker.
The Nike shoe also pops up regularly in this show. As Mortimer noted recently, this particular sneaker contains air in its platform sole. Growing up, he coveted this shoe, but it also represents something else he very much wanted—more air. He couldn’t get either when he was growing up.
For those who have cystic fibrosis, “65 roses” is a code name for the disease. Mortimer plays on this in his 65 Roses, where he depicts an angelic blue figure, hands beseeching, as it draws rings of red roses into its brain. This is a truly visionary piece; in this work and others Mortimer has achieved what can only be called “metaphysical swagger.”
In his passionate artist statement, Mortimer writes: “I want to see the 95 percent (that) many scientists claim is there but we can’t see. I want to fix my eyes on the unseen. I want to see what is real. Understanding the Higgs Boson could explain how we exist with the discovery of the ‘God Particle.’”
In The God Particle Weeps Too, Mortimer merges the image of a giant eye, weeping, with that of a subatomic particle. Red, purple, yellow and blue work together to pummel the viewer’s eye, and what is convincingly conveyed is the intensity of Mortimer’s belief in God with his hope in scientific miracles.
Throughout the show Mortimer has sprinkled tondo-shaped images of healthy red blood cells as well as lime green circles representing mucous, his constant companion. Both are exemplary examples of abstraction, and both are beautiful. A number of Mortimer’s sculptures and works on paper give evidence of his acute frustration with his disease—one piece is titled WTFHITS, God? (What the Fucking Hell is This Shit, God?) But mostly he asks: Can I Live?
One gets the feeling that Mortimer would be as effective preaching in hell as in heaven.
The exhibit also includes more than a dozen small works in editions of three that are variants of the large works. They are also dazzling.
“Dylan Mortimer: Cure” continues through Feb. 13 at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. For more information, 816.474.1919 or www.leedy-voulkos.com.