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tragicomedy of our species in the throes of sin and saintliness, suffering and salvation. Here we see humans, angels, demons, and dragons cast in an inert, wretched dance, set against backdrops of old marine charts of New Zealand coastline, rendered in serenely hued acrylic.


What to make of the macabre constellations of bodies, blood, and bile that besmirch our pristine shores? This surreal amalgamation of cartography and divine catastrophe emerge from Mortimer’s understanding of inhumanity as an immutable element of human nature. Life has always been a brutal affair, and endemic violence, famine, and plague remain a reality for many - even if that fact is obscured to those of us living on these tranquil islands. Mortimer deftly reminds us of this fact by inviting the apocalypse to our neighborhood, recasting the medieval in a contemporary light.


But don’t let Mortimer's fire-breathing monsters spoil your soufflé. His work thrums with hope amidst the horror, striking a delicate equilibrium between despair and the timeless aspiration of transcending our own folly. It is not for nothing that these apocalyptic terrors unfold within and are framed by maps - what is a map for if not for finding the way? Mortimer’s cartographical endeavors eschew orientation of the spatial variety, mapping instead the intangible realms of ethics, psychology and the spirit. Surreal scenes of depravity and barbarism glare out warningly in the way the original sailor's charts would caution of a shipwrecking reef. Like Dante, who himself made a metaphorical journey from Hell through Purgatory to Heaven in his Divine Comedy, Mortimer upholds the belief that we may yet find relief from mortal peril.


Mortimer often devotes a month or more to each of these paintings, and the finished canvases testify to this patience and deliberation. Intricate, elusive networks of signs, symbols, and code beguile viewers into lengthy inspection as they puzzle out subtleties and subtext. As in Dante’s epic, Mortimer’s paintings are replete with manifold allusions to political and social issues of our time, remaining firmly in dialogue with the present. Nevertheless, there is an eternal tint to his work, as with any art that engages the timeless paradoxes and mysteries of the human condition. His is at once a medieval and a contemporary affair - one that looks to our past in the hope of a better future.


Roger Mortimer graduated from the Elam School of Fine Arts in 1999. In 2014 he was the Paramount Award Winner in the Wallace Art awards - one of New Zealand’s top two art awards. In 2017, a survey exhibition of his work, 'Dilemma Hill’, was shown in public galleries in Wellington and Auckland. His paintings feature in a range of public and private collections in New Zealand and Europe.

With thanks to Nadene Milne for commissioning this introduction for her website.

Roger seated.jpg

Portrait of artist by Solomon Mortimer

Roger Mortimer’s paintings contemplate the peculiar nature of humanity. He describes himself, with a twinkle in his eye, as a Catholic Buddhist and this theological compound has clearly shaped his perspective and his practice. His work is also informed by an abiding interest in psychology and his eclectic readings of  history - real and imagined. The latter fascination is particularly evident in Mortimer’s art, earning him the moniker 'contemporary visual-mythologist.'


This diverse array of inspirations coalesce in a strange and intriguing body of work. His paintings have a refined, medieval aesthetic that traceable to his early paintings, which featured elaborate monastic-style calligraphy, painstakingly deployed within curious paintings of bills, bureaucratic documents and mail-order catalogs. His recent work is inspired in large part by Dante’s Divine Comedy, and emphatically embraces the medieval style, as well as the thematic concerns of the time. These paintings are apocalyptic and fantastical, showcasing the spectacular


ChatGPT and Mortimer on his work.


The fusion of maps and art is not a new concept. Artists have been creating maps and atlases for centuries, using their creativity to embellish the functional purpose of maps. In recent times, contemporary artists have been exploring the relationship between maps and art, creating works that blur the line between the two. One such artist is Roger Mortimer, who combines marine charts of the coastline of Aotearoa New Zealand with vignettes from Dante's Divine Comedy.


The act of mapping is an act of power. Maps are used to represent the world around us, to make sense of it and to navigate through it. They are used to delineate borders, define territories, and enforce control over a particular space. However, maps are not neutral documents. They are shaped by the cultural and political biases of their creators, and their use can have a profound impact on the societies they represent. This has led many contemporary artists to explore the concept of mapping in their work, using it as a way to subvert dominant narratives and to challenge established power structures.


The use of marine charts in these paintings is significant, as it represents a specific type of mapping that has a long history in Aotearoa. European navigators used charts to explore and chart the coastlines of Aotearoa, and these charts were instrumental in the colonisation of the country. By using these charts as the basis for his paintings, the artist is highlighting the role that mapping played in the colonial history of Aotearoa.


Art has always been a means of exploring cultural identity, both on an individual and collective level. Mortimer’s paintings explore cultural identity in several ways, both through the use of maps and through the choice of Dante’s poetic images. The juxtaposition of the maps and the vignettes creates a tension between the functional and the aesthetic, challenging the viewer to consider the relationship between the two. The scenes from Dante's Divine Comedy are not directly related to the maps, but they create a sense of depth and complexity within the works and evoke a particular mood or atmosphere, creating a sense of narrative within the paintings.


The epic poem is a seminal work of Western literature that explores themes of sin, redemption, and the afterlife. Its inclusion in these paintings suggests a certain level of cultural and intellectual power, speaking to the influence of Western culture on Aotearoa. However, the artist's choice to include these vignettes recontextualised within the context of Aotearoa's history also suggests a critique of Western cultural dominance, as the scenes are not directly related to the history or culture of Aotearoa.


Subversion is a common theme in contemporary art, and is often used as a means of challenging established power structures and dominant narratives. The use of marine charts in these paintings is a form of subversion as they challenge the dominant narratives surrounding mapping and cultural identity. Maps are often seen as accurately representing the world around us, but the use of marine charts in these paintings highlights the biases and power structures that are inherent in the act of mapping.

Mortimer's paintings and tapestries are a complex and thought-provoking exploration of mapping, cultural identity, power, and subversion. By combining marine charts of the coastline of Aotearoa New Zealand with vignettes from Dante's Divine Comedy, the artist creates a tension between the functional and the aesthetic, and challenges the viewer to consider the relationship between the two. The use of maps and vignettes highlights the biases and power structures that are inherent in these concepts, and the artist's appropriation and recontextualization of them is a form of subversion that challenges established power structures and dominant narratives. Overall, these paintings are a powerful and engaging example of contemporary art that explores important themes and concepts in a unique and thought-provoking way.


Free Research Preview. ChatGPT may produce inaccurate information about people, places, or facts. ChatGPT May 3 Version

Artist talk at Milford Gallery Dunedin May 2024.

Milford Galleries 2024


There is no such thing as a single reading or interpretation of a Roger Mortimer painting or tapestry. His work is multi-faceted and multilayered, traversing time and place plurally.

Mortimer’s unique and rare ability to blend fact and fiction while engaged in a virtuoso presentation of human foibles and events – both mythical and real – firmly locates his work in the literary worlds of Dante’s Inferno while equally explicitly positioning it in the lexis of New Zealand’s past and present.

These are as much marine charts and medieval nautical maps as illuminated manuscripts, and parables of behaviour where dichotomies – depictions of heaven and hell, good and evil, past and present, incidences of life and death, etcetera – become key components in a narrative conversation which in essence has no beginning, middle or end. These important works are also politically engaged, using the past as a visual metaphor for contemporary morality and the processes of colonialism. These are epic narratives, where the reveal comes slowly but ultimately with the force of a sledgehammer when the viewer realises this is the coastline of New Zealand, and that the locus is utterly local.

Be it the Taranaki coast, Aotea (Great Barrier Island) or Southland (the Awarua Plain reaching across to Fiordland and Stewart Island), indigenous flora (fern, flowering pōhutukawa, flax, nīkau, ponga) adds further particularity. We witness everything in a state of flux, (where angels, messengers from heaven and scenes from biblical texts are quoted, where a wire fence divides or an architectural building contains) in a pictorial environment dominated by mythic beasts, elaborate compasses and nautical imagery.

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