Written words, printed, often drowned in paint, fragments of paper, images, photographs, the shape of a tree, scratched on the canvas… The idea of layers, of juxtapositions, of the passing of time, is the first thing that strikes you looking at these big, colorful, Viggo Mortensen’s paintings. Some years ago, in the preface of a catalog Recent Forgeries Dennis Hopper had defines that art as “Active, free, yet weighted in tradition as new as the computer, as old as Christ.” For Mortensen the canvases are like “a diary, a representation of my memory, of the way my mind works. They reflect precise experiences and moments, even if I don’t necessarily remember them.”
We reached him at Track 16, the gallery that until March 30th, will host his most recent show of paintings. In a way, it is not surprising that the actor that was Aragorn (the human hero in Lord of the Rings, and one of the most mysterious of Tolkien’s characters) has a second, artistic life beyond Hollywood. Maybe is something melancholically elusive, even a bit reserved [“ombroso”, not the right word but close] that is present in all his interpretations (A Perfect Murder, A Walk On the Moon). Maybe it is the fact that, even if his talent is appreciated, he doesn’t seem to be stressed about his career or maybe more simply it’s his peculiar biography (of Danish origin, he was born in New York but grew up in South America).
“With movies the results even if they good do not belong to me: what emerges is the character as seen by the director. I have no control and as a matter of fact I have no real connection with any of my movies,” Mortensen explains. “The only thing you can do is to move away from it with a certain grace and the most decorum possible. Even Aragorn is Peter Jackson’s Aragorn it has nothing to do with me. And I don’t mean to be critical: I was only a tone of blue in a bigger painting.
If hadn’t been for the role in A Perfect Murder I would have never painted seriously. I used to make some sketches every once in a while nothing more. But when they allowed me to create paintings for my character (the man that Michael Douglas hires to kill his wife n.d.r.) I discovered how much I liked it. Before the shoot started I had already painted around forty. They used to come much quicker then. Now the process is a bit longer. The paintings have multiple layers. They hold more things, more sensations, images, happenings.”
Like his paintings, also Mortensen’s photographs show the subtle intimacy of a diary. Being those of his son Henry (who is fourteen and acts) or of Elijah Wood on the set of Lord of the Rings, of a trail on the beach, of a deep forest seen from above or the more “precious” slides in black and white, his are pure subjective images, made to capture the moment: “It’s not as much about what attracts your attention but the mood in which you are in that makes you notice that particular change of light, that movement—what makes you record it so that can find it later,” says Viggo, that for a few years tries to always have his camera with him (often the old Hasselblad of twenty years ago): “With the passing of time, it has become a travel companion. Sometimes I don’t use it for days until something moves me.”
In the preface of Signlanguage, the catalog of Mortensen’s current exhibition, the critic Kevin Powers puts in relation the actor/artist with the poets and painters of the beat generation, but he shies away saying: “I have read those poets and I know that period of the American culture, but I don’t pretend to know enough to judge. I don’t have a deep knowledge, I ‘stumble’ into things as they present themselves.”
He almost laughs when I ask if it is true that he is a musician: “I like to play with music. But I would not define myself as a musician, but a sound modulator. I love to be with musicians and play, to see what comes out from the mess that we do together. The important thing is to produce sounds, not the instrument. Because we use what’s available, even the exhaust pipe of a car will do.”
In the meanwhile in has three CDs on his resume. The Other Parade, that he has done in 1998 (and which features his ex-wife the punk musician Exene Cervenka on guitar) reaches me the morning after by courier. At the phone, Mortensen had defined it: “Amusing, irritating, with lyrical moments.” I can’t help asking him, with all these interests, if it would crush him to be forced to quit acting. He doesn’t even think about it that much and then he concludes: “Actually…no.”