Dylan Mortimer, “Pink Bouquet,” 24×30″, Acrylic on Panel
In his 21 years as an artist, Dylan Mortimer has exhibited Telephone Prayer Booths in parks throughout the world (including New York’s Tramway Plaza), engineered giant halos that ascended over visitors’ heads at museums, flashed neon signs of biblical quotes on various walls, melded Hip Hop bling with Old Testament psalms, and covered every surface imaginable, including outdoor trees, with glitter.
So his current exhibit “Infusion” may be something of a surprise to those who follow his career. The artist who can construct anything has now made . . . paintings. With no glitter. But they’re paintings only Mortimer could have created. From large to small they blaze with color, are resolutely upbeat, with symbolic references to the body and healing, and possessed of passionate energy. There is also a direct, muscular quality to Mortimer’s painting style, evidence of his years as a sculptor.
The paintings shimmer with confidence and bravado, belying the fact that their subtext refers to the IV infusions from Mortimer’s numerous surgeries, including two lung transplants, with all their life-and-death implications. Unless one is familiar with Mortimer’s personal history, the works in “Infusion” could be seen as buoyant tributes to the cosmos and botanical still lifes. But “Candy Coated IV” and “Glory Light Infusion,” with their brightly colored stripes, both refer to IV infusion bags. His four glorious flower paintings are actually bouquets of scar tissue, while images such as “Perfect Weakness,” which resemble asteroids, actually reference surgical incisions.
A 2002 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, with an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York, Mortimer has exhibited his iconic artworks widely in the Kansas City area. He has received a Charlotte Street award, along with a residency at The Studios Inc., and an Art in the Loop commission. He has had exhibits at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Greenlease Gallery, Paragraph, Opie, and the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, among other venues here. He has also had exhibits around the United States, including the David Zwirner Gallery in New York and Columbia University. His 11 public art installations stretch across the country, and include New York, Chicago and Washington.
From the beginning Mortimer’s art has been confident, merging strong formal qualities with the spiritual and the personal. His earliest work confronted the contemporary art world’s discomfort when he made his belief in God the subject of his oeuvre. Mortimer’s current practice focuses more on his personal journey; this may also make viewers uneasy as he makes his battles with cystic fibrosis front and center stage in his work.
And yet his art, such as the paintings in “Infusion,” are beautiful, which is one of the enigmas of Mortimer’s work.
“Things are not all evil or all good,” Mortimer said in a recent interview. “The paintings in ‘Infusion’ are a paradox, in that they represent pain but (the IVs) are also what keeps you alive. My flower paintings are bouquets of both pain and joy.”
The spiritual remains strong in Mortimer’s art. His work is possessed of an inner radiance; the artist is not separate from the cosmic overtones his art evokes. And though his paintings are highly personal, they also, deliberately, aim for universality.
“Ultimately,” Mortimer says, “my work takes a stand. It’s so easy right now for humanity to give up about so many things. My art is saying have hope; don’t give up.”
“Dylan Mortimer: Infusion” continues at Habitat Contemporary Art at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., through April 14. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. For more information, habitatcontemporary.com.