Whitehot Magazine

February 2011, John Stezaker @ Whitechapel Gallery

John Stezaker, Pair IV, 2007
Private Collection, Copyright John Stezaker, Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery

John Stezaker
Whitechapel Gallery
77-82 Whitechapel High Street
London, E1 7QX
9th January through 18th March, 2011

This seminal show at the Whitechapel Gallery plays a much overdue punctuation to the intricacy of John Stezaker, an artists who has been practicing since his 1960s graduation from the Slade School of Fine Art. It's fair to say that the accolades for Stezaker's work and contributions are many, with the influence of his approach and style stretching far beyond the mainstay of collage appropriation and appreciation. A cursory glance at the work of Stezaker remarks an understanding which finds his influence cropping up within not just contemporary art, but pop culture, advertising, TV media and a generation obsessed with pushing the possibility of the image. With this in mind, Stezaker has achieved more than just a sub-cultural dimension to what he makes. His work manages to unveil the cross-hatch between looking and the rare treat of actually seeing. What makes this work so unbelievably flattering is its ability to tease and alter the senses. It's difficult not to look at a Stezaker image and come away without being incredibly seduced. The delight of either glancing or staring quixotically at Stezaker's combinations creates a warmth akin to watching a Sunday matinee on a rainy day, discovering Humphrey Bogart for the first time, listening to the crack as a record skips, or curling your toes wantonly. With this in mind, his work is not primarily the exotic path of a deep vintage obsession with the past. It beguiles the need for something far more substantial than a love for times gone, retro-asphyxiation and the concern of the pretend. His images are ebbing gaps and gapes between cinematic feel-good and that troubled confusion of a present day mis-trust in the fashion of the emotional memory, and the irresponsibility of whimsy.

The curator of the show, Daniel F. Herrmann, sets out this attribute through a host of different angles into and then away from Stezaker's attitude. He moves not through a historical trajectory with the work, but through 'themes' or categories of investigation, citing as the crux an overarching problem of how best to deal with the image within an era dramatically steeped in an excess of the visual. Herrmann concludes that Stezaker opens up this equation by arresting the image, and holding it within a trance of situationalism. Forcing the image to find a foundation by absolute minimal interaction. Stezaker not only barely touches the images he combines, but he does so by such a deliberate manifestation that it becomes irreversible that the two ever existed away from each other in the first place. Stezaker has an unshakable eye for the presentness and the timely- ness of image amongst images.

John Stezaker Love XI, 2006
Private Collection, Switzerland. Copyright John Stezaker, Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery

Love XI (2006), which greets the audience on entering the gallery, is an echo of why Stezaker should be held so dear. His acute selection process remarks a tenacity akin to Gerhard Richter and Richard Hamilton, but with this in mind these are obvious parallels. Love XI (2006) is a mere slice in our view-line, a rearranged discord or harmony. Stezaker's interpretation isn't about letting an image glide past unnoticed, neither is it about screaming the abject cacophony within his work. It's a subjective relationship that you build with the work, trying to out wit it by pin-pointing the place where Stezaker made his slice, cut, paste or focus, alas it is this quest for the command of the work which finds the viewer leaving empty handed. The parade of potential 'themes' as outlined by Herrmann could equally shed a potentially feverish light on Stezaker's choreographed visual manslaughter. The rooms of the show reflect collections of ideas which Stezaker seems to be working through; dualisms, obsolete movie stars, landscapes, caves, fountains and lastly on the back wall Stezaker's 'Third Person Archive.' Much is to be made of these sub-collections or categories of production, sympathetically it is a hotly disputed task to form a curatorial foundation to this body of work without allocating a very specific reading.

Symbiotically the works Mask X (1982), Mask XXXV (2007) and Sonata (2009) portray an astute lure and hyperawareness with the ploy of subversion outside of a specific reading. Stezaker manages to actually make the images more 'real' by his heightened enquiry into the currency of each image he uses to create his mis en scene. As every image occurs the viewer is drastically faced with the attention that what is being played out inherently becomes the rightful place for each image to rest against the other, almost as if they were meant to be this way. With this in mind both Mask X (1982) and Mask XXXV (2007) recount a haunting melody eons apart. The frightful gap and space created by the abstraction of facial expression for the gain of the nonchalant landscape makes of an image something far more dangerous and pivotal in the eye of the viewers mind. It makes for the spectacle of the double-take to reign free and absolute. All is not well in the world of Stezaker's image re-articulation. From extreme fear and mis-trust, to desire and romanticism Stezaker toys provocatively with the concern of the absolute. The viewer praises and recoils with each step towards the next piece of work, and it is this very juxtaposition which could mount a detrimental blow at how Stezaker works.

John Stezaker, Sonata, 2009
Collection Stephen Bennett, Germany; Copyright John Stezaker, Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery

Time and time again, it is the truth of the conjoining or osmosis between the images which comes to the forefront of this reading. Stezaker's work Untitled (1977), Pair I (2007) and Pair IV (2007) finds a dual realism akin to something inherent and meant to be, over something absurd and dystopic. It is then possible to fall back into the elbow of Bogart, propped against the piano in 'Casablanca,' his wistful eyes reminding the viewer of times gone by, better times, grander times. With this in mind the work of Stezaker isn't just a tale of black and white films, noir and celuloide excess, his images portray the bones these films and times came from. The virtue of the unknown as a passage to the reality of the present. That speculation of the past often leaves holes in understanding which we shackle with retrograde romance.

Stezaker suggests that in order to free our selves from this melancholy we must look a-new, departing from a place which 'welcomes lovers, as time goes by.' To freeze the moment of fetishisation by blocking the path, Stezaker ultimately makes a place for the past to reign away from the need to always know and feel how it was, to discover it a-new each time. Thus, Stezaker recognises that rebuilding the reality of the past leaves not only inaccuracies and perversions, but dismantles the possibility of chance, the fundamentals of not knowing and the enjoyment of existing within the present.

John Stezaker, He (Film Portrait Collage) XIV, 2007
Collection Stephen Bennett, Germany; Copyright John Stezaker, Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery

Sophie Risner

Sophie Risner is a freelance art writer and critic living in London. "I am less art critic and more art writer - I find the idea of critiquing art through writing difficult in a purely formalist fashion. I often lean towards the difficulty of language as a way into the inherent difficulty of art. Embracing all aspects which observe and inspire artist practice as a way to create a more fruitful and less didactic approach."

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