John Stezaker at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum[uds-billboard name=”Stezaker”]Even if British artist John Stezaker does have a bit of a problem throwing away nearly anything from his decades-long collection of found images, we can at least be grateful that it has paid off wonderfully. In the robust, major spring exhibition John Stezaker at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University, viewers immediately get a sense of Stezaker’s obsession with the found image. He is particularly drawn to movie stills, postcards, magazines, and advertisements from the 1940s and 50s, a time when mass culture and strategic advertising were wildly on the rise. Known for pairing seemingly unrelated images, he makes a few cuts and a strategic paste to deftly create entirely new compositions with an unexpected depth and often Surrealist edge. Because his works are on an everyday scale (almost all are 8 ½ x 11’’ or smaller), the materials insist that we reconsider their original use while also making us aware of the process of looking and of image consumption. Stezaker’s expansive oeuvre can at first seem overwhelming, but that feeling quickly subsides in the realization that he often works in series which are grouped together, by wall, within the exhibition.
In his Mask series, Stezaker juxtaposes a Hollywood-style black and white portrait with an idyllic postcard, showing an image of untouched nature. In Mask X (1982), for example, a postcard of a double-arched stone bridge going over a rocky, rapid-inducing portion of a river has been placed directly on top of the center of the face of a seemingly attractive woman, whose bare porcelain skin and busty chest is displayed by a low-cut, strappy dress. The two arches become the woman’s eyebrows, their open area underneath her eyes, and some rocks, her lips, to create a startling new depth by, ironically, placing one flat image onto another flat image. But, rather than being ‘on top’ of her face (betrayed only by getting up close to the work and seeing the slightest overlap), the postcard becomes a space of re-imagining what it means to gaze into someone’s eyes.
The Film Portrait Collages speak strongly to the essential idea in photography of ‘the cut,’ and Stezaker has cited the influence of French writer Roland Barthes’s discussion of the cut as a space of both loss and desire. In both Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) XXXII (2007) and Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) LXI (2010), Stezaker has combined one half of a man’s face and one half of a woman’s to create one new, double-gendered face that, surprisingly, fits, but not without unease. Related is the coupling found in the Pair series. The same postcard technique used in the Mask series is also used in Pair I and Pair IV (both 2007), where one postcard is placed over a double-portrait of a couple in a similar forced visual marriage between the two; through one image, two people are effectively forever connected as one.
Perhaps most jarring, at least in a physical sense, are the series of doubles – either double ground or double sky images. Lost Tracks II (1992), a double-ground image of two different train tracks, one flipped upside-down on top of the other, has the effect of a sort of purgatorial space, according to the artist, and one with no stillness (a word he uses often). In contrast, the images of two different skylines, like The Bridge XXXIII (2008) are, according to Stezaker, “dream space for me, almost agoraphobic feeling of being exposed.”
In a panel discussion with the artist (the source for the above quotations), Assistant Curator of the Kemper Art Museum, Karen Butler, and writer and Assistant Professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Michael Newman, Newman began by noting that Stezaker treats the image as something to be read and decoded. Stezaker wholeheartedly agreed and said that it was when he turned away from the prevalent text-based conceptual and photographic work in the 1960s and 70s to just the image itself, that his career and sense of himself as an artist really took off. Stezaker repeatedly referred to the primacy of the image itself, and to how, when it is even slightly manipulated through collage, it maintains that elemental factor that keeps viewers coming back again and again: ambiguity. If captioned photography (which he called “annihilation of the image”) flattens meaning, then Stezaker’s early artistic move to embrace ambiguity allows exploration with fascination, which he called the most intense relationship one can have with an image. Stezaker spoke of this ‘aha’ moment, where he had an image and thought, “‘Is that it?’ and decided, ‘Yes! It is!’” He found that by abandoning text and taking up collage (a term he strongly prefers over appropriation), “incredible complexities began to emerge” which before had been limited by the filter of text.
Other series include Sublime (1987-98), photographs showing the varying, billowing puffs of smoke issuing from industrial factories into a bright blue sky, recalling the actual transformation of a solid into a gas, but also the strange beauty and calm that arises when looking at what is actually harmful pollution. There’s also an early work (1978) entitled The Trial, which pictures events inside of a courtroom collaged with images of Classical sculpture and architecture, with a deep-seated Surrealist edge; and Dark Star (1979), which positions a figure ‘interacting’ with another who has been replaced by a shadow, indicating both the artist’s presence in creation and absence in original and modified time and space. Third Person Archive is the series most unlike the others, at least visually: in these images, scale is form. All measuring less than 2’’ high, these tiny images of anonymous figures have been cropped out of topographical photographs from the 1920s and 30s. Stezaker spoke about the compelling discovery that he had a greater intimacy and empathy with the tiny figures the closer they got to disappearing and also the resurrecting action of bringing back to life an “archive of lost souls.”
Stezaker’s thirty-plus years of collage work is about much more than just making viewers aware of their own ways of looking – it is an on-going tribute to the power of the image itself, to the sleight of the artist’s hand, and to a history of humor, ambiguity, and Surrealist tendencies inherent to the use of the found image. In a culture of visual overload, Stezaker’s ability to make us do a double-take and re-imagine the ordinary visible world as something altogether extraordinary – and to do it so well, even if it is a kind of ‘theft’ – is his true and lasting achievement.
John Stezaker continues at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum through 23 April 2012. See www.kemperartmuseum.wustl.org for more information.