John Stezaker - Exhibition Review


Reviewed by Sophy Rickett

Published in Hotshoe

“The collecting started in 1973” John Stezaker has said, and with it a new preoccupation, one that would persist, going on to form the foundation to his artistic practice right up to the present day.  In this major solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, the artist presents over ninety works spanning the thirty eight years between then and now. 

Stezaker is known for his collage, a technique that in his hands is so minimal, it can amount to a single cut that slices an image from his collection of studio publicity portraits squarely in two.  This, and the subsequent layering, and aligning, of that fragment of face over another creates a kind of third face, a someone in between.  It sounds innocuous enough, yet the images  weirdly and profoundly unsettle.  They are of impossible creatures, monstrous, grotesque, their features collapsed in on themselves, through some strange twisted origami or otherwise embellished by the crudest means, yet their humanity endures; they retain an aura of dignity, the gentle ring of truth.  In the Mask series, again featuring studio publicity portraits, the ‘host’ image, (the face of the actor,) is blocked by a commercially produced post card depicting a landscape feature such as a waterfall, a grotto or a cave, that seems to knock a hole, bang, in the centre of the face like a punch.

In Tabula Rasa, the artist’s intervention takes the form of an incision; a perfectly formed rectangle cut out of the image, yet at the same time intruding into the image through its consistency with the perspectival plane of the original photograph.  The Lost Tracks collages also play with perspective, this time through emphasizing an artificially constructed vanishing point.  Here, the incision between the two images is difficult to discern because it is ‘hidden’; subsumed into the perspectival geometry of the train tracks that the title of the series refers to.

Stezaker’s work has not developed chronologically; instead he works sequentially, often returning to a series twenty or thirty years after its initial inception, making it at times difficult to tell an early work from a later one. His concerns and his technique shift between the series; he always works with found images, often using some form of collage, yet that term can seem too bland, inadequate as a way of evoking the psychological strangeness that lies at the heart of what he does.

The earliest of the works, The End, (1975) is a small rectangular fragment of a post card showing Big Ben at twilight against a dramatically illuminated sky.  This small but significant piece marks Stezaker’s first tentative experiments in working with his ever expanding archive of found photographs, an archive that has intrigued, inspired, and absorbed him ever since.  His later works also consist of found imagery from the archive (which he estimates has come to contain around a million photographs and prints), and although his process has been refined, the work continues to revolve around an absolute fascination with what he describes as a image which is already there, ‘for how’, he asks, ‘can you improve upon that?’

The 3rd Person Archive is an ongoing series of image fragments cut from an ancient photographic atlas of world geography, and later from Victorian travel illustrations.  Each tiny image, printed in the catalogue at actual size, shows an anonymous figure in an unidentified place.  Captured by accident, and purely incidental to the purpose of the original photograph these figures seem to haunt the spaces through which they move.  Some are so grainy, so pale they are almost transparent, their presence so fleeting as to only just register in the image at all.  And while the film star portraits have on the face of it a whole other energy, that is, the weight of the Hollywood studio publicity system; the lighting, the makeup, the whole context of the ‘silver screen’, there is also something very frail about the personas they present, something of the fragile transience that characterizes those distant lonely figures in The 3rd Person Archive.

Stezaker celebrates the forgotten, the inconsequential, the anonymous, the accidental; the Dark Star collages came about when, having cut out the portrait of an actress from the page of a magazine full such portraits, the artist noticed the effect this had on the portrait of the actress on the other side of the page, who had now become caught up in a strange sort of standoff with a black silhouette.  I ask what he does with his off cuts – maybe it’s a relief, I suggest, when you get to throw something in the bin.  “Rarely happens”, I am told.  “There are no such thing; off cuts often turn out to be the most interesting bit”.

John Stezaker

29.01.11 – 18.03.11 

Whitechapel Gallery


18.1.11 – 11.09.11 

Mudam, Luxmbourg