From November 1998 to January 1999, Viggo Mortensen exhibited a selection of his more recent work at the gallery Track 16. The title he gave the show was Recent Forgeries, and naturally enough the catalogue for the show bore the same name. First published in 1999 when the show ran, through Smart Art Press, Recent Forgeries has now entered its seventh printing and is released through Perceval Press
So we need to backtrack in time nine years, if not more, to when these works were created. Something to be keep in mind is that these works were in a gallery before Viggo Mortensen became the name he is today. Prior to Lord Of The Rings, Hidalgo, and History of Violence, the movies that have thrust him into the limelight, he was already an established artist in his own right, not because he was a movie star or a celebrity.
Although anybody who has spent any time reading his poetry or observing his visual art would quickly recognize his talent, I'm sure there have been many a disparaging comment made about a celebrity getting recognition without deserving it. In fact, my voice was one of those making cynical comments like that before actually seeing or reading anything Mr. Mortensen had created.
Even a casual flipping through of the pages of Recent Forgeries will quickly dispel any impression of this being the work of a dilettante or someone out for easy ego strokes. These are all difficult and challenging works of art from both the artist's and viewer's perspective.
In some instances the mundane quality of the subject matter — shots from a child's birthday party, a swimming pool, a mother and child on a front porch — might individually provoke a reaction of "so what? I can do that." But taken in context with the other pictures, a theme, or perhaps the modus operandi of the guy behind the camera, would be more appropriate a way to apply our focus .
By getting beyond our initial reactions to the focal points — the painter on the ladder, the surfboard in the pick-up truck, a man holding a hose which sprays a glorious arch of water across the frame, or any number of other simple moments in time compositions — something changes. Questions about the individuals in the works might all of sudden come to mind – how did that man with those tattoos on that shoulder come to be outside in the blazing sun painting a seemingly endless wall?
Who would leave a surfboard in wide-open bed of a pick-up truck? What kind of person owns a beat up red pick-up truck and surfboard that looks as weather-beaten as the vehicle? What is the child in the blue face paint at the birthday party looking at off to one side, what is making him smile like that? What is the woman writing in the journal with many crossed out lines in it – or is she just reading it? What are they all thinking?
Questions abound about everything in our world when you let them. Viggo Mortensen's photographs remind us that behind every simple act there is the potential for complexity. Surfaces are just that, the face over top of what lies beneath. Even if his photographs aren't x-rays they do bring us to the point of pausing for a moment to think about what we are looking at and what's below the surface.
"I'm not arrogant enough to say I haven't been influenced by anyone," Mortensen comments on his way of seeing, "but the way I work has mostly been shaped just by being in the world and looking … So much has already been done and there's not much that's new … Making things is a way of finding out." (page 9)
The worst things about looking at catalogues of shows of paintings is the fact that it is so hard to get an idea of scale when seeing a work on a page. How much of the impact is lost by not seeing the work in person? Especially in the case of abstract art — and Mr. Mortensen's work is no exception to this — where texture and colour combine to stimulate a reaction within the viewer.
Look at how he describes his process as "making" in the above quote, then go through the book and look at the pictures again. For indeed, making these constructions is exactly what he's done, using as his building materials paint, wood, scraps of images from other sources, and pages of writing from what we can only assume are his own journals.
If making things is, as he says, "a way of finding things out," what is he attempting to find out? What has he seen "being in the world and looking" that has generated the questions he hopes to answer in his "makings"? What is your emotional response to the work on the page in front of you? What do you think he's asking?
In his opening preface to Recent Forgeries, Dennis Hopper says something along the lines that the process in which Mr. Mortensen's art travels is from his subconscious to his conscious and in turn is absorbed by the viewers' subconscious where it forms into a conscious reaction. While it's maybe true there is some visceral reaction to the paintings on an instinctual level — bright colours and forms do provoke reactions — I think that to stop there would be selling his work short.
Mr. Mortensen may not follow a conscious process of observation, questioning and answering when he creates his works, but that is always at the heart of the matter. Whether or not they come together in a particular piece, thought has been given to composition and how materials relate to each other as they help him find things out.
Although abstractions, his work is not simply a half-hazard throwing together of material in the hope that it will make you "feel" something. Look at them a second and a third time and see the work that is involved; spot the clues that he may have left for you as to what he was thinking of at the time. It will be worth your while.
Viggo Mortensen is not a person to do anything lightly; you only have to read the poems that have been included in this work to realize that. More than anything else they are what reveal the complexities that lie behind all of his work. Sometimes describing, like his photos, the seemingly commonplace or the everyday and elevating it to art, his poems read like post-it notes from emotional minefields. On the surface nothing much seems to be happening, but if you were to put a foot down in the wrong place… things could get messy.
Other work brings chaos theory to life when unrelated people become tied in by an event – the man hit by the Harley Davidson owner on her way to the health club, and knocked into the salad bar of the Denny's allows the unemployed actress in the bathroom to walk out without paying her bill. We had learned that the man liked to live dangerously in traffic, ignoring lights and safety, and ironically is killed by someone else ignoring a light driving a vanity vehicle to the health club.
We can form pictures or each of these individuals in our mind, or at least find a frame of reference for them. But all we learn about the out-of-work actress is that "tragedy has often been her ally." Frustrating in its incompleteness maybe, but real in the fact of how much do we ever know about the people at the outer ripples of events?
After plunging into Recent Forgeries and reading, looking and listening (a CD of Mr. Mortensen reading some of the poetry in the catalogue is included), one gets the impression of a mind that is constantly in motion with an eye always on the look out. He might see and hear things in ways we don't and draw conclusions that perhaps we wouldn't have from those observations, but he is not afraid to try and explain his vision to us.
You could do him the disservice and say these works shouldn't be analysed intellectually, but left alone to be "felt" by each individual who sees them. That only serves to cheapen what he does and reduce his effort to the hackneyed. Too often people who have less skill than ego will be heard to say that technique doesn't matter, it's what you make people feel that counts. If you can't organize your thoughts on the page, focus a camera, or hold a paintbrush, you're not going to communicate anything.
Not only does Recent Forgeries find Viggo Mortensen quite capable of doing all those activities, it all shows he has mastered them to the extent of being able to communicate to those willing to listen. If you're not willing to meet any artist halfway, there is nothing they can do about that.