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January 30 2011

John Stezaker

Whitechapel Gallery, London; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex

Two movie stars in evening dress lean in for the kiss. The air is scented, the music quivers and mounts. But just as their lips are about to meet, the moment is blocked by a quite different view – of a river at the bottom of a deep dark gorge, flowing away towards a distant light.

A sepia postcard has been glued to a 50s film still: romantic landscape, romantic movie. That is the work; the method is simple. But the alignment is so skilful that one is able to hold two (and more) opposing perceptions at once: the lovers about to kiss, evident though their profiles are occluded; the prospect of passion welling up in the darkness; but also the exact opposite: two cliff-faces opposed, blocked, never to meet, with no release. Look into the image and it deepens; look, and you see through it to another side.

Pair IV is a collage by the English artist John Stezaker. Its impact clearly comes in part from a lucky strike, the persuasive coincidence of jaw and cliff, eyebrow and foliage, the light in the room and the light in the landscape. Stezaker has shuffled his numberless pack of images and hit upon a perfect match.

But idea precedes experiment, and for 30 years or more Stezaker has been pondering visual incongruity, inverting, rotating, slicing and splicing pairs of old images to create new works of art. His juxtapositions are anything but seamless – colour/black and white, male/female, portrait/landscape – precisely so that the eye is confronted by obvious disunities that the mind must somehow resolve.

Sometimes the idea is so simple one marvels, above all, at the strange effects. Stezaker removes the top half of a starlet in jodhpurs and her braced legs appear inexplicably monumental. He crops Big Ben so that the clockface is tiny against the glorious frame-filling sunset above, time mocked by mere elements.

He nips and tucks: one film star is blinded by the excision of a narrow strip across the eyes; another becomes bug-eyed by the doubling of this strip, which also gives the collage an optical shudder.

Two 50s children sit uncomprehending before an adult almost entirely obscured by a blank white screen. The scenario appears irresistibly comic, something like the dog in the famous New Yorker cartoon that perceives nothing but gibberish in its owner's speech-bubble, except this humour is tinged with horror. Innocent eyes, the dawn of the television age, the tyrannical adult bearing down like Big Brother: it's all there in the pale glow reflected in their faces.

There is only one (incised) image here, a movie still carefully selected for its well-placed window, true source of that glow. But sometimes the art arrives more serendipitously, as when Stezaker cut a film star out of a fanzine, then discovered that the actress on the back was now trapped in a tense double-act with a black silhouette. Dark Star, he called that series.

But Stezaker mainly works with two found images: postcards masking faces or hovering above them like ideas; silhouettes crammed with fantastical pictures; male-female hermaphrodite faces. These are his weakest works, a dilution of the surrealism to which he often alludes. Freud's photograph hangs above the couch as a postcard train rushes out of the patient's head: Magritte reduced to the absurd.

Stezaker's work has been extensively theorised in terms of popular culture, signs, signifiers, surrealism, early Hollywood and advertising history. Some of his admirers are even obsessed with the one thing he isn't interested in at all, namely the source of his images. But the strength of his best work, it seems to me, comes from something older than the original photographs: a Romantic wildness.

It's the starlet teeming with bat-wheeling visions, the lighthouse in the silhouetted head, the mother at the child's bedside, both obscured by the postcard of a lonely country lane opening up like a new story between them. Enchanting, vertiginous, darkly humorous, disturbing, the effects are masterfully achieved. Nature is matched to man, landscape to portrait with absolute precision. Waterfalls for eyes, pools of thought, the canyons of the mind: Stezaker makes metaphors visible.

An anonymous actor sits blindfold at a desk. Just above him, like an inner vision, hangs a postcard of an old castle shattered by waves and storms. It is Chillon, the prison in Byron's great poem, but it belongs to this Everyman too. Dark, mythic, rising straight out of his sightless head, this fearful image passes straight into your own. Stezaker's collage is a modern Sleep of Reason, the mind haunted by free-floating images.

When Andy Warhol asked 60s stars to pose on film for four minutes, some stood stock still as if for an old-fashioned portrait, while others broke into nervous tics or laughter within seconds. Those who knew the sitters were regularly amazed, though, because their reactions were always so characteristic.

Do moving portraits have unfair advantages? This question is constantly in play at the De La Warr Pavilion's riveting new show. Motion and narrative, the subject shown in time, in the round and in their own words: the genre seems to have a head's start.

Moving Portraits is wonderfully comprehensive. It has many classics, from Warhol's Screen Tests and Gilbert and George's Living Statues to Fiona Tan's exuberant little sons trying hard to stay in frame. Some subjects are famous – Duncan Campbell's Bernadette Devlin, Sam Taylor-Wood's sleeping David Beckham, a split-screen Duncan Goodhew – though most are intimate.

And it is beautifully curated to show an immense variety of approaches, from Julian Opie's digital self-portrait in crisp black outline, a drawing trying to hold as still as a conventional sitter while also breathing and blinking, to Gillian Wearing's 2 into 1, in which family truths are revealed by having the children lipsynch their mother's monologues and vice versa, in a work of horrifying drama.

But isn't this as much a manipulation as any of Sargent's painted socialites? What strikes is how often the same issues matter: setting, pose, expression, clothes; and how much still and unstill portraits have in common.

It is true that Margaret Tait's great 1955 film of her mother dancing through the Orkney heather could hardly give a better sense of the old woman's lightsome spirit and lilting voice, her way of unwrapping a sweet with all 10 delicate fingers. But what emerges here is the real virtue of the film portrait: its power of reciprocity. The responsiveness, the mutual exchange, the relationship recorded over time between those before and those behind the camera – this is the singular gift of making and viewing the moving portrait. We should all be doing it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

John Stezaker exhibition - in pictures

John Stezaker has been pondering visual incongruity, inverting, rotating, slicing and splicing pairs of old images to create new works of art

January 29 2011

Brian Dillon on John Stezaker at the Whitechapel Gallery

John Stezaker's collages using black-and-white film photos and old postcards are nostalgic but also uncanny and absurd. As a career-spanning exhibition of his work opens at the Whitechapel Gallery, Brian Dillon pays tribute to a sly romantic

The English artist John Stezaker, whose uncanny collages are the subject of a career-spanning exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, tells a revelatory tale about the origins of his luminous art. Stezaker was born in Worcester in 1949; when he was 13 his family moved to London, and around this time his parents supplanted their crackling old snapshot albums with a new slide projector. The teenager was fascinated by the apparatus, and especially by the single demonstration slide that came with it: a wide-angle photograph of two men overlooking the Thames, with the Palace of Westminster and a lurid sunset behind them. Stezaker swiftly grasped that the projected image might be used to make art, thus obviating the tedium of freehand drawing. But when he took the machine to his bedroom, he found all he could squeeze on to a sheet of paper was a corner of the picture: Big Ben, a few turrets and a stretch of red sky. He tried painting over it in his best approximation of an "expressionist-psychedelic" style, but when he turned off the projector the result was "horrific".

In light of the artist's subsequent romance with the found photograph, this anecdote is almost too apt to be true. By the time he enrolled at the Slade in the late 60s, his main influences were Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke: painters whose use of photographs overlapped with and trumped, in expressive terms, the pop art of a few years earlier. But Stezaker was a student too at a time when a wholesale critique of the pop-cultural image was being launched by such thinkers as Guy Debord; the Situtationists' scurrilous repurposing of media imagery became an exemplary strategy for him, alongside his abiding, and then unfashionable, interest in surrealism. (He recalls being shown Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté, based on the illustrations to earlier novels, by William Coldstream on his first day at the Slade.) Schooled also on the recently translated writings of Walter Benjamin, for whom the conjunction of photograph and caption had altered forever how we looked at images, Stezaker began making work with text and pictures, intent on exposing the mystique of the visual.

It was a move that was very much of its time – London-based artists such as Victor Burgin and Susan Hiller (whose own Tate Britain show opens on Tuesday) were doing parallel things in very different registers – but for Stezaker it was a dead end. He suspected that his territory was the collective fascination with image itself rather than the conceptual urge to undermine that fascination. At this point, in the mid-70s, that sliver of sunset from his adolescence unexpectedly returned. He had since learned that the complete photograph was also a hugely popular postcard, but it was still the skewed portion in the corner that obsessed him. And he began to realise, with a mixture of conceptual insight and lingering emotional attachment, that it required little or no artistic intervention beyond his first excision of the haunting fragment. (The resulting work, The End, is in the Whitechapel show.) The image itself was the work of art and, although the various painstaking subtleties of his style remained to be worked out, the mature Stezaker aesthetic was coming into focus.

He was not, of course, the first artist to deploy the found photograph, or combine such photographs, without comment. It was a favoured trick of his surrealist precursors, from Ernst to the pages of Georges Bataille's late-20s journal Documents. But it's important to gauge his careful distance from the tradition of photomontage – a term he avoids, in favour of "collage". As Stezaker sees it, the great monteurs such as John Heartfield and George Grosz always worked at some remove from the image itself – indeed, this was often the critical or satirical point of their work: to conjure radical ideas out of pictures that otherwise allured the everyday viewer. With his residual romanticism and often frank embrace of 20th-century glamour, Stezaker is perhaps closer to an artist such as Hannah Höch, whose Album of 1933 juxtaposes press imagery with ravishing fashion illustrations and fragments of a sublime or disturbing nature. In Stezaker's collages as in Höch's, images sidle up to and seduce one another, shying from overarching arguments or narratives.

That's not to say that there isn't a degree of knowing distance – and a strain of disturbing violence – in Stezaker's work. It is first of all a historical distance. Early on, he began to work with actors' portraits (mostly black-and-white) and film stills from the middle of the 20th century – images he culled from defunct cinemas and picture agencies that were then going out of business. (Stezaker once bought the entire contents of one such establishment, although the prints are now so precious and rare that he cannot bring himself to make work out of them.) The film stills are especially peculiar artefacts: posed publicity shots taken during production rather than frames reproduced from the finished film. Like the colourful, scenic postcards with which Stezaker often overlays them, they hold the same kind of attraction that Victorian engravings held for the surrealists. The distance – inflected with nostalgia and absurdism – is essential, because one of the things Stezaker is engaged in is a daring rescue of images from the memory dump of the recent past.

It's hard to say precisely what the artist does with such images. In a sense, practically speaking, it's ludicrously simple: he places one picture on top of another. Consider Negotiable Space I, from 1978. The larger, "background" image shows a psychoanalyst at his desk, his analysand stretched on a couch, a medicine cabinet in the corner and a photograph of Freud on the wall. In the centre of the image, and seeming to threaten the foreground of the scene, is a colour postcard showing a train emerging from a tunnel – its edge obscuring the face of the patient. The inference seems clear at first: this is a comically "Freudian" emanation from the unconscious of the figure on the couch – except that this initial schematic response won't exhaust the collage. The crude intrusion of the postcard makes us notice oddities about the film still – a lattice of shadows around the Freud portrait, the surprising expanse of empty floor at the bottom of the picture – as well as curious details by which the two images rhyme: railway tracks aligning with the desk so that it, too, looks about to charge out of the frame.

There are many other works of this type. In the Trial series classical ruins, a picturesque waterfall and the Bridge of Sighs at St John's College, Cambridge, all erupt among the anxious monochrome attitudes of a cinematic courtroom scene. In an untitled collage from 2008, a crowd of Hollywood bathing beauties is framed and almost overwhelmed by a sideways-on photograph showing the complicated sculptural entanglement of St George with his dragon. But the signature Stezaker gesture is more frequently the cut and splice of two or more images, doing suggestive violence to both. Here is a young Lauren Bacall, her face diagonally bisected by roiling floodwaters or – the series is entitled Film Portrait (Disaster) – obliterated by an image of torn-up trees. Here, in a series titled Third Person, are lesser stars whose faces are half-hidden by anonymous silhouettes, from the depths of which a third image obtrudes: a garish landscape or an eerie flight of birds. And in recent works the background picture may also explode through the centre of the interposed image, in a cartoon flash worthy of Roy Lichtenstein.

The mystery of Stezaker's art may be said to reside in these precise and shocking cuts. He has spoken of the moment when he takes a blade to the sleek surface of an old bromide print as one of heightened anxiety and tension – having handled and gazed at these images for months or even years, he likes to get the incision over and done with as swiftly as possible. Unfinished works in his London studio have the look of gaping wounds, something like the suddenly opened slit, product of a slip of the thumb in the kitchen, described by Sylvia Plath's poem "Cut": "a sort of hinge / Of skin, / A flap like a hat, / Dead white." They remind us that historically photographs have been as much things to be touched as looked at, that our fascination with them is at once visual and tactile, almost grisly.

This impression of keen-eyed assault is strongest (and frequently funniest) in Stezaker's cutting and suturing of close-up portraits. Everywhere in his work there are faces made monstrous, comical or weirdly attractive by their carving up and careful wedding with others. In fact one series is called Marriages, and shows pairs of men and women – mostly, it seems, they are actors' studio portraits – incongruously conjoined to suggest new faces. A mustachioed man in a pullover meets a wavy-haired blonde to produce a figure with an oddly raffish cavalier look; a middle-aged woman with a complex hairdo acquires the aquiline nose of the actor she obscures. For all their strangeness, however, the faces are also exquisitely aligned, the arc of an eyebrow or the thrust of a jaw running on from one image to another, so that the whole is bizarrely credible as a glamorous or grotesque new being. One's eye moves tirelessly, entranced, between the two faces and their Frankenstein offspring.

What is less endearing, and more alarming, about these "married" faces is the extent to which their own eyes have frequently been attacked by Stezaker's scalpel. (There's a reminder here of the founding image of surrealist oculism: the slitting open of a woman's eye – replaced at the last edited moment by that of a cow – in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's 1929 film Un chien andalou.)

More generally in his work, it's often through the eye that the incision passes: whether vertically (as in the splicing of two faces) or horizontally, as in a series titled Love, where a narrow strip of the same image is inserted along the eye line, so that the subject stares out at us with expanded, blurred and alien orbs. The result is that the people in Stezaker's collages seem to suffer a variety of austerely rendered optical afflictions, from a squint or strabismus to full enucleation: in the series Blind, the eyeballs have been razored out along a straight line and the edges of the photograph brought together again.

Such images are part of Stezaker's continued investigation of the intimate strangeness of the photographed human face, the way it exposes and veils at the same time the feeling, thinking creature within. This fascination finds its fullest expression in his Masks series. Here there are no cuts, just the judicious placing of colour postcards over monochrome portraits. They're among Stezaker's slyest and most unsettling works, because what they intrude into the portraits is a series of gaping holes: chasms and waterfalls that cleave faces in two, yawning caves and sunlit sea arches that tunnel into unknowable interiors. These collages are the more ghastly and comical for once again being perfectly aligned: clumps of rock become noses, the arches of a stone bridge a pair of gawping eyes.

The Masks return us to another, less nostalgic, story that Stezaker tells us about his development as an artist. As a student, he happened on a photograph in an old medical textbook that showed a woman's face half eaten away by a rodent ulcer – inside and outside had become horribly confused. Stezaker closed that book with the thought that he must never look at it again, but in other ways he has not stopped looking since.

John Stezaker is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 18 March 2011. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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