“Won’t He Do It?” is an exhibition that navigates many topics of life, death, mortality, illness, healing, hope, despair, trauma. The images and sculpture exude a faithful joy and hope, like the thin thread we find ourselves hanging on to in order to survive and thrive. This faith propels us to keep going when there doesn’t seem to be a reason to. This work aims to process both my own feeling and perceptions of my experience, while hoping to connect outwardly to the fragility of life we all face, and the charge we are all set with to find hope in seemingly hopeless situations.
The title is "Won't He Do It?". This phrase is often used in contemporary churches in call and response. The call being "Won't He Do It?", the response being "Yes He Will". In my transplant recovery, many people messaged that phrase to me as a source of encouragement and hope, inviting me to reciprocate their hope. "Won't He Do It" echoes many sentiments of contemporary society: "You got this" or "You are strong", yet with a twist. The notion is that help is available and coming, but from a source outside of ourselves. My faith tradition believes this source is simultaneously outside us and within us. What could be more true of a transplanted organ? That which was exterior is now interior. Without the exterior, I would not be alive. And yet it, or rather that person, is a part of me and I am genuinely more than myself, physically, emotionally, spiritually.
"The Ceiling Can't Hold Us" is a rendition of my second transplant, but it is also a remix of the story where a paralytic is lowered through the roof to see Jesus because the room is too crowded to fit in. "Ascending and Descending" evokes my feelings at the bottom of subway stairwells, not sure how I would ascend, but knowing I would somehow. "Gates in Proximity to Paradise" is a series of backs of ambulance doors. For me they hold the tension of trauma and hope. You never want to see an ambulance... except when you really do.
The exhibition is an attempt to explore this balance. Many have asked me what it's like to breathe with a third pair of lungs. I respond that it is inexplicable, except to say it's like the miracle of breathing with a first set of lungs. We don't earn that... no one "deserves" or "earns" breathing. It is a gift. Given to us regardless of our ethics, politics, beliefs, or resume. I both mourn and celebrate my donor simultaneously. "Won't He Do It?" is a leap, trusting that something more than me is compelling me to breathe. And in that breath, we hold the tension of mourning and joy, trauma and hope, and death bringing life.
Won’t He Do It?
Most contemporary artists whose work stems from an inner source of peace and reconciliation prefer to conceal or downplay those origins, or at the very least to disguise them through metaphor. The reason this is the case is that art, as it has become defined through a preponderance of modern practice, is rooted in conflict, and the dynamic tension generated by that conflict is what drives both the individual artist’s creative process and the individual viewer’s quest to locate meaning within the finished work of art. Subsequently, there seems to be little tolerance in the contemporary art community for pious renditions of religious faith, fealty to noble rulers, or paeans to military glory, such as these motivations are understood to have steered much of art’s development for nearly the entire duration of human civilization.
As an artist of deep religious faith who has even spent extended periods moonlighting as a minister, Dylan Mortimer has always found such strictures to be fairly confounding. After all, growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in Ferguson, Missouri — now universally known as the birthing grounds for the Black Lives Matter movement, following the police killing of an unarmed teenaged named Michael Brown — Mortimer’s adolescent vocabulary of hip-hop and sports did not seem all that alien from the adjacent world of church-going and talk about Scripture. In fact, much of the impetus for his student and post-graduate artwork took the form of push-back against those formal constraints, and Christian-themed hip-hop bling jewelry played a prominent role in that stylistic self-identification [full disclosure: in 2005 I was an instructor in the MFA program at School of Visual Arts in NYC, and Mortimer was a student in my class]. Like such influential mid-20th century theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Buber, Mortimer saw boundless intellectual stimulation in the paradoxes of Christianity in the world, and extolled the mystery of the liturgy and its great unanswered questions as reinforcing his spiritual faith instead of undermining it.
It can be fairly argued that being a person of faith comes as a distinct advantage if one is also grappling with the health challenges that Mortimer has faced his entire life, and which have intensified at the same time that his work has achieved a distinctive level of stylistic maturity. Born with cystic fibrosis, Mortimer has lived with a condition in which ‘longevity’ is typically defined as surviving your thirties (he’ll turn 41 this year). That his survival has been possible at all is explained by the motivation provided him by his double vocation as artist and minister, by the unwavering support of his family, and, more than any other factor, by an extremely fortuitous combination of the highest level of medical care and timing that’s nothing short of remarkable. Without getting excessively sidetracked by one man’s unique medical history, as inspirational as it has been for those who know him (and many who’ve only heard or read his story), suffice it to say that Mortimer is currently the buoyant and grateful owner of a second pair of transplanted lungs, which seem to be holding up much better than the first pair, which replaced the pair he was born with. Above all, that means that the work currently under consideration was created during the most recent transition.
Before turning to that work, it’s worth pausing to consider a dying tree that Mortimer methodically transformed into a sculpture in 2018, by adorning it with paint and metallic glitter that deftly folded questions of belief and revelation into a highly personal iconology that combined biology, scripture, autobiography and art historical sources. That tree was located in Kansas City’s Swope Park, and formed part of Open Spaces, a 90-day international multi-arts event that I conceived and produced for the city. At that time, Mortimer had recently moved to New York City, and was the recipient of his first double lung transplant, which drastically transformed his life to the point where his health could, for the first time, take a back seat to his studio work. Mortimer’s Open Spaces project initially entailed the selection of a tree within the KC Park system that had died during the 2017-18 winter, but for reasons of public safety, the tree chosen was in its last stages of dying, so that its branches would still have some resilience. Envisioning the tree’s branches as taking the role of the lifesaving passages provided by his own brand-new lungs, Mortimer imbued the tree with a vibrant intensity that could be read both as the reassuring glow of a slowly dying ember, or possibly as a symbol of the persistence of life and hope in the face of death and decay. Whichever interpretation one preferred, the tree had the last word, surprising everyone by bursting into a brand-new coat of leaves just as autumn settled in.
Mortimer settled on the title Won’t He Do It? for his current exhibition as an intentional return to some of the liturgical themes that are central to his world-view. In context the question serves as the refrain within a call-and-response for which the answer is a jubilant “Yes he will!” Although not intended to reference his own condition, the title is meant to encompass some quality of the dualities that continually interweave one’s ideal state of spiritual harmony with the humbling obstacles that comprise daily existence, even for those of us who have not spent much of their lives battling a chronically lethal illness. This is especially clear with Ascending and Descending, which superimposes a loosely webbed network of the body’s inner passageways over a golden staircase that alludes to heaven, but is in reality a set of looming NYC subway steps, rendered as he would stand and ponder the effort of climbing them, at a moment in time when his lung capacity was worryingly deficient.
The theme of healing is, understandably, everywhere in Mortimer’s current work, and at times biblical stories share the spotlight, as in Like the Ceiling Can’t Hold Us, which nods knowingly at all-night raves where the title song was guaranteed to drive a crowd of dancers to delirium. The actual scene, however, fuses the story of Mortimer’s second transplant with that of the paralytic who is brought to Jesus to be healed, but must first be lowered through the roof of the house where he is staying. The artist perceives the implicit inside/outside dichotomy in a deeply personal way: his life goes on through the internal mechanism of breathing, and yet those lungs first had to exit the body of another and enter his own, which is about as literal a paradox as one could imagine. At all points Mortimer’s primary art material, glitter, reinforces the work’s underlying connection to vernacular forms of sacred art, and in particular to the class conflict implicit in the premise that painting which aspires to challenge the formal status quo of the medium must by definition consider its subject from a secular viewpoint.
During the current coronavirus pandemic, as the inner workings of ICU wards and emergency care wings of hospitals become the focus of national attention, and the bravery and sacrifice of those on the front lines of medicine are held in awe by the rest of us, it’s also become apparent that for years Mortimer’s art had already paved the way toward the current depiction of medical caregivers as superheroes, lungs as battlefields, the interiors of hospitals as sites for miracles, and of protective masks as a means of ennobling the subject. In the new series, Gates in Proximity to Paradise, the ambulance door is seen as the liminal state between being free to live your life at home, and needing the protection of a large public health-care facility. Explaining the “tension between trauma and hope” in this work, the artist — who has studied more than his fair share of ambulance interiors — says simply, “You never want to see an ambulance... except when you really do.”
Although he purports to not remember it — and who am I to doubt an honest man’s word? —, back at SVA Mortimer’s entire class was invited one morning to shout out proposals for a lecture topic that they would like to see covered, but which did not appear on the syllabus I’d distributed to them. His suggested topic was fiendishly simple and yet the most challenging to fulfill: art and invisibility. The difficulty was not so much that the subject lacked antecedents in both artistic or curatorial practice — Kasimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt proved useful, as did Tom Friedman’s customized curse placed on a cubic foot of air above a sculptural pedestal. Instead, discussion of specific examples meant conjuring both a description and an interpretation for a sequence of artworks that no one, for the most part, would be able to clearly see for themselves. In the end, there were not only no complaints, but the ‘invisibility’ lecture actually went into occasional rotation for future classes. Looking back, however, his off-the-cuff proposal serves as an apt prologue for Mortimer’s artistic trajectory, wherein despite everything in his paintings being absolutely clear and unambiguous, the most important content, as with our own flesh-and-blood selves, are the parts we can’t ever see because they’re busy keeping us alive.
DAN CAMERON is a curator and art critic based in New York whose credits include Prospect New Orleans (Founding Director 2006-2011), New Museum (Senior Curator 1995-2006), 8th Istanbul Biennial (Curator 2003), 13th Bienal de Cuenca (Curator 2016), and Open Spaces Kansas City (Artistic Director 2018).
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