As anyone who knows me personally will know, collage and photomontage are things for which I have quite a considerable penchant. People like Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield, Raoul Hausmann, Georg Grosz, Marianne Brandt, Robert Rauschenberg, Gee Vaucher, Linder Sterling, and the list goes on, really get me going and all rate highly in my pantheon of favourite artists. So, I was delighted when a friend emailed me a link to the John Stezaker exhibition which is on at The Whitechapel Gallery in London until 18th March.
Call me an ignoramus but this was my first brush with John Stezaker, although I have since found a little section about him in a thick hardback book I have on my bookcase entitled "Collage-The Making of Modern Art", something I'd previously, foolishly overlooked. A little research reveals that this internationally famous artist, who has exhibited all over Europe and in America, was born in Worcester in 1949, studied at The Slade during the 1960s and has been exhibiting his work since the early seventies. It seems he also taught for a time at The Royal College of Art in London, the city out of which he works, I believe. Anyway, as I was down in London last weekend, a little gang of us went along and really enjoyed what we saw.
Like most artists who use collage, John Stezaker is definitely carrying on in the tradition of dada and surrealism, the juxtaposition and grafting together of seemingly disparate images combining alchemically to create an often absurd yet affective new entity which defies everyday reason yet transcends it at the same time in ways that verisimilitude often cannot. For the majority of the works on display, a retrospective stretching from the 1970s to the present day, Stezaker has used vintage movie stills and film star portraits as his foundation and then worked over the top of these in different fashions and to varying degres of success, we all felt.
Amongst my personal favourites are a series of glossy, promotional portraits of glamorous stars from yesteryear called "Marriage" wherein two images, usually one male, one female, have been spliced and fused together, the result being a new, androgynous, partly beautiful, partly grotesque entity which now looks madly vulnerable or sinister and powerful, sometimes both at the same time, rather than coolly confident and sophisticated as originally intended. A mismatched pair of eyes, an incongruous mouth or nose or an impossible expression composed of disparate elements now act powerfully to subvert the original intentions of the carefully posed, saleable attractiveness and star quality which lie at their core. Most of these are in the form of full face portraits, although the occasional profile is also used to good effect. It's hardly rocket science - a bit like making John McEnroe out of The Queen and Charles Darwin on a £10 note - but it is, as I say, quite stimulating stuff to look at.
Not dissimilar to these is a series caled "Masks" where similar promotional portraits have once again been used. This time, though, instead of bringing together two images from a similar source, Stezaker has overlaid vintage postcards of dramatic landscapes, often with dominant features such as caves, tunnels, ravines, bridges and so forth. The result is that, with careful positioning, these architectural or geographical features then act as eerie substitutes for those of the face. Eyes, foreheads and even entire faces have seemingly rotted away or collapsed into cavernous receses and holes whereby these beauties of the silver screen are now, for the most part, rather grotesque like rotting corpses or smashed in skulls. However, the effect is not so brutal as this suggests but is actually highly amusing, in the more successful pieces, as the collision of these two coexistant worlds, the contrived beauty and naturally brutal and sublime, have been melded together very wittily. There are also some images in this series which are based on film stills of pairs of characters engaged in dialogue or about to dive into a romantic clinch. However, the drama of their pairings has been stripped of its intensity by the replacement of almost entire faces with natural phenomena, the effect reminding me a little of Serge Gainsbourg's "L'homme a tete de chou" or Dali's images of women with flower-covered heads.
Less appealing to me is the "Dark Star" series where characters in film stills or the aforementioned portraits are replaced by a mysterious black void, as the gallery blurb says, "creating an ambiguous presence in the place of the absent celebrity" and other images whereby blank spaces, usually rectangular, replace details in film stills or other images. The effect in some of these, although very simple in execution, can be either ludicrous or quite sinister and unsettling in places.
So, there's quite a bit of variation on a theme in this exhibition but it's well worth taking a look at if you're in the neighbourhood. The Whitechapel Gallery is always worth visiting, anyway, as they have some brilliant exhibitions on there. I was quite taken with John Stezaker, actually, and have gone off and ordered myself a book fom Amazon. It's due to arrive any day now with a bit of luck.