In his artist’s statement for his current exhibition at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, Dylan Mortimer writes, “I am searching for a cure. For my body. For my mind. For my soul. For my spirit.”
The bodily cure sought by Mortimer is for cystic fibrosis. He was born with the genetic disease, which causes a thick buildup of mucus in the lungs, pancreas, and other organs.
In the lungs, the mucus clogs airways and traps infection-causing bacteria leading to lung damage and eventual respiratory failure. In the pancreas, it blocks the release of digestive enzymes necessary for the breakdown of food, depriving the body of nutrients.
Mortimer is 36. The current median age of survival is around 37.
The artist’s new work is his first to focus on his health.
In the past, Mortimer’s art explored his evangelical Christian beliefs. An art school graduate (with degrees from the Kansas City Art Institute and New York’s School of Visual Arts) and an ordained pastor, Mortimer’s religious work seeks, through humor and deliberate provocation, to prompt dialogue about a subject typically avoided or treated cynically by the art world.
Mortimer’s “Prayer Booths,” installed temporarily in Kansas City in 2003 and subsequently in other American cities, modified pedestal-style booths by removing the phones and adding flip-down kneelers that passers-by could use to pray.
More recent text-based work featured Biblical statements of faith translated into the language of hip-hop and presented in large glitter-encrusted signs glowing with Christmas lights.
Created over the last several months in his studio space in the former Katz building at Westport and Main, Mortimer’s latest works continue to evince his Christian beliefs but emphasize concerns about his health.
“Can I Live?,” a 5-foot-tall cruciform sign sculpture, is the earliest work in the show. Styled in the Lucida Blackletter font used for his earlier hip-hop themed works, the silver-colored words of the title, illuminated by Christmas lights, are surrounded by an outer border of gray corrugated plastic.
Above the text, blue tears pool at the base of a large green eye and spill downward in a vertical stream, also glowing with Christmas lights. Sparkling glitter, the unifying material of the whole show, enlivens every surface of “Can I Live?” paradoxically rendering visually attractive the work’s plaintive text and lachrymose imagery.
“Can I Live?” is the only work at Leedy-Voulkos to incorporate text. Challenged to abandon the use of words by local collector and arts advocate Sean Kelley, a frequent visitor to Mortimer’s studio, he devised several wall pieces that feature only the spiky outer border of the absent texts that are the works’ titles.
In “Help My Unbelief!” — attributed to a father mentioned in the Gospel of Mark whose boy is healed by Jesus — the glittering field of missing words surmounts the image of a white rib cage from which green leafy branches emerge, symbolizing healthy new life.
In addition to rib cages, stylized cross sections of human lungs — the vital organs damaged by cystic fibrosis — proliferate in Mortimer’s exhibition. In some cases the lungs are juxtaposed with the motif of a Nike Air Jordan sneaker — a shoe brand coveted by Mortimer as a youth and one whose name includes the vital element (“air”) the artist struggles to absorb through his damaged lungs.
An arresting 7-foot sculpture of red lungs with Christmas-light studded pink bronchi and bronchioles resembles an upside-down tree. Titled “I Want More Air!” which invests it with personal meaning, it is on loan from the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, which acquired it in July.
The most recent works in the show, presented in rectangular frames, are executed in glitter and acrylic paint on paper. The best of these, “Airway Clearance,” depicts lungs turned upside down to form a red and pink tree set against a black sky glowing with white orbs. Green ooze drips from the tree’s lower branches.
The composition evokes the treatment Mortimer routinely endures when his body is inverted to allow mucus to drain from his lungs — an experience transformed artistically into an image of strange and riveting beauty.
In mid-2015, Mortimer began taking a new drug designed to counter the effects of the defective protein that causes cystic fibrosis. The drug improves the flow of salt and fluids through cells lining the lungs and other organs, helping thin the built-up mucus.
Mortimer celebrates this therapy, which has given him increased energy and some weight gain, through a joyous glitter-and-acrylic-on-paper work, “My New Cells.” It presents pink-centered white cells within a red orb ringed by a starburst of gold-green and radiating bars of blue and red.
Other drugs aimed at the root cause of cystic fibrosis are in development, bolstering Mortimer’s hope for an eventual cure — the theme of this gorgeous, brave and deeply moving exhibition.
Dylan Mortimer’s “Cure” continues at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., though Feb. 13. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. For more, go to leedy-voulkos.com.