In the interview that prefaces the book Recent Forgeries Viggo Mortensen's home is described as being filled to the bursting with art work under construction, completed pieces, materials that he has accumulated with an eye for what they might become some day, and piles of framed and unframed photographs everywhere. In order to carry out simple tasks like getting a drink for Kristine McKenna, who conducted the interview, out of the fridge requires moving a coupe of canvasses so the door can be opened.
"The garage is full of paintings even bigger than these" he says, and is described as sounding as if he was confessing to some transgression. It's no wonder than that only two yeas after the show that was catalogued in Recent Forgeries Mr. Mortensen has been able to pull together enough material for a new show at the Track 16 gallery in Santa Monica California.
As with the previous show Mr. Mortensen has released a catalogue of the work that was on display. Unlike the earlier show Signlanguage contains only works of visual art, photographs and paintings. Well, that's not exactly true, for as is usual for Mr. Mortensen's painting he has incorporated writings from his journals into the works, it's just that none of the writings appear on their own as individual works.
At first glance the paintings appear to be simply colour- bold and vivid eye-catching colours that reach out and grab your attention with all the subtlety of an act of violence. But with careful regard images or ideas can be seen shyly showing themselves through the brilliance.
At first there might only seem to be a meaningless scrawl of words barely discernable through the layers of paint and texture. But, deliberately or not is left for you to decide, certain words or specific images will push themselves forward. They might be slightly darker in their outline, or be a little more exposed, that their presence becomes obvious. However it's happened they are what the eye will be drawn to after settling down from the initial assault of colour.
In one painting the rough line drawing of a tree climbs the right hand border with a dark moon or sun framed between two major branches. The contrast of the images with the predominate rose colour makes one wonder about the scrawl of words that is underlying the whole. Not legible to the reader of the book, part of me wants to know if the poem, or journal entry if that's what it is, are what the title "Volsung 2001" refers to – or is it some reference to the tree and what appears to be an eclipsed moon or sun.
Other paintings are a little less enigmatic; for example "Isolation And Its Effects On Colour Perception With The Passing Of Time 1999" shows a figure – perhaps the artist you wonder because that would make sense in some ways – down on all fours with head hanging between arms. Above the flat back of the figure, near the centre of the canvass has been scrawled Isolation.
The figure itself is the dark mauve/blue that brings depression and despondency quickly to mind, while as the canvass retreats upwards away from the figure the colours gradually lighten. Near the top of the canvass, halfway between Isolation and the top, there is a break in the solid surface, which looks like where the plaster has fallen away in an old house to reveal the lathe work in behind.
Could it represent a possible exit – an end to isolation – or is it a symbol of the isolation in its decay. When we think of people who cut themselves off from the world, it is usual to think of them living in surroundings dingy, depressing, and falling into decrepitude, embolic of their no longer caring about anything.
While Mr. Mortensen's paintings seem to be intense expressions of personal emotion, his photographs in this period are still more concerned with recording events and moments in time for our contemplation. In the interview I mentioned earlier on in this review he talked about how he started photography back when he was still in highschool.
"It seemed there was always something going on that I could be taking a picture of, and I suppose I eventually started feeling a little removed from life. I'm actually shooting more these days, but I'm thinking primarily about colour now and assuming the framing will take care of itself since I've been doing it so long. It's a much looser and more relaxed way of working". Mortensen, Viggo: Recent Forgeries Smart Art Press 2006, pg. 8
While I didn't notice that relaxation as much in Recent Forgeries, although there were some examples of it, in Signlanguage it seems like Mr. Mortensen has removed restrictions from himself that had existed up to this time. Images spill over the edges of boundaries; a forest refusing to be constrained by any human element giving proof to the saying of not being able to see the trees for the forest, as they become a dark, dense mass of matter.
Film is pushed past its maximum to until slightly grainy and the resulting image takes on an almost fantastical element suiting the subject matter. Scenes from the set of The Lord of The Rings shot inside Chetwood Forest are full of foreboding. It becomes a place where the an Orc could lurk or other denizens of Middle Earth would feel right at home.
People appear on the side of the frame in the foreground so our eye is drawn to them off to one side, but the pull of the rest of the world is still exerted upon us. No one exists in a complete vacuum, they are part of the environment, or part of that moment in time that Mr. Mortensen has captured and held onto for us to witness.
On occasion where the person is dead centre the question becomes who are they; characters from the movie, Eomer or Gimli son of Gloin, or the actors who portray them? Karl Urban in full makeup and costume is no longer there, whose eyes are looking out at us from the frame?
Or then there are the simple statements of fact that can't be disputed. A woman laying on her back on a large rock in the middle of what looks like a field of grass in the late afternoon sun – the photo is called simply "Paradise". Immediately evoking the joy of basking on a sun baked rock in the middle of a quiet field, perhaps only hearing crickets or grasshoppers.
Somehow Mr. Mortensen manages to capture just the right moments in time with his photographs that he is able to trigger an instantaneous reaction like that. The series of images that make up "Lost", three photos of ghostly tree braches in the winter, and one final shot of the back of a cabin with a ladder leading up to the roof and the trees which contain the branches, combine to give a feeling of being lost.
Not lost in the sense of not knowing where you are while traveling perhaps, but being lost in the ghostliness of a winter day when it feels like the world has gone into a trance. I think it's almost something you have to experience, because it escapes my ability with words to express it. But Mr. Mortensen has captured it perfectly and if you know the feeling you will recognise it, even without being able to describe it.
Signlanguage is an interesting step back in time in the career of Viggo Mortensen the photographer and painter, as it shows him starting to trust his emotional instincts with camera more and more. Gradually he is starting to use black and white film as often as colour and showing a willingness to let things happen as they will instead of trying to wait for or frame the perfect moment.
Comparing the work in this book to the work in Recent Forgeries I found it to be more assured and confident. The colours in his colour photography seem bolder and more assertive then before, and the black and white images show more freedom then earlier work. While his paintings may not appear to show the same significant amount of change, there are some subtle distinctions and nuances of image that began to appear at this point in his career.
It's always interesting to go back and look at an artist's earlier work and see where he has come from and how he has progressed. Signlanguage is one such stop along the way in the path of Viggo Mortensen; like his photographs it is a moment taken out of time and preserved for us to look and think about.
(Originally posted March 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.