John Stezaker: Love
Essays by Michael Bracewell, Craig Burnett
The collages and silkscreens of John Stezaker contain stutters and elisions, gaps and coverings that pull viewers into “an act of empathetic engagement,” as the artist said in a 2011 interview included in the catalogue for his retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery. Stezaker’s alterations of found photographs brim with psychological resonance, recasting, for instance, the faces of an embracing couple as shadowy thickets of forest through the precise placement of a scenic postcard within a film publicity still. By cutting up and combining the bland products of postwar image culture, Stezaker invites his audience to imagine a deeper, stranger, more desperate inner life for the figures trapped within its tropes.
Born in 1949 in Worcester, England, Stezaker attended the Slade School of Fine Art in London in the late 1960s, where student radicalism, a revival of earlier Dada photomontage practices, and the writings of the Situationist International fed his impulse to reuse the detritus of popular culture. After a fire destroyed his student paintings, he turned to collage full-stop, accumulating an enormous archive of postcards, publicity stills, studio portraits, and advertisements to use as materials. Critical analyses and interviews of Stezaker cite a mountain of influences and references that can be understood in or applied to his work, including the Surrealism of Max Ernst and René Magritte, the distorted perspectives of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Giorgio de Chirico, Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” the psychological tension of films by Alfred Hitchcock, and the narrative compression of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, among many other artistic and philosophical landmarks. While Stezaker’s compositions are deceptively simple in appearance, each rip, pairing, or rearrangement sets off a spiraling whorl of emotional, historical, and intellectual touchpoints.
John Stezaker: Love, published by Ridinghouse on the occasion of an exhibition of the same name at the Approach, London, is a slim yet tantalizing overview of Stezaker’s work from 1976 to 2017. Earlier collaborations between the Approach and Ridinghouse on Stezaker’s work, such as Marriage (2006) and Masks (2008), focused tightly on one series, while Love is a more comprehensive overview of the various formal strategies the artist has deployed in his longstanding exploration of desire. Love is not organized chronologically, leading to a pleasantly weird sense of disorientation as the reader considers its selection of thematically linked yet formally diverse images. The book includes collages from Stezaker’s long-ranging and well-known series of postcard compositions; sinisterly tantalizing selections from the “Photoroman” series (1976-1979) of geometrically chopped images from the titular pictorial romantic paperbacks; a photograph of a beaming bride marred by a small tear in the corner from the “Damage” series (2014); and the uneasy portraits of Love (2012-2017), whose subjects’ eyes have been sliced and multiplied, like aliens subjected to the violence of Un Chien Andalou (1929). Even when shuffled out of chronological order, Stezaker’s consistent formal inventiveness and thematic commitment to ambiguity come across.
Love mines this fertile terrain with restraint, and the authors of its two essays reject theoretical flourishes in favor of more emotionally resonant, creative approaches. In “The Look of Love: Collage, Cutting and Photoroman in the Art of John Stezaker,” critic and novelist Michael Bracewell, whose writing was also included in the Whitechapel catalogue, focuses on the way the artist’s collages call up obscure associations and buried personal experiences through the most economic of formal means. Opening with a precise description of the collage Untitled (Photoroman) (1977-78), in which an ambiguous photograph of a couple is divided into neat squares, Bracewell’s tightly composed essay cites Stendhal’s De l’amour, Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, and the medieval practice of entering into a text through “Lectio Divina” (Divine Reading) in explaining the “intoxicating” effect Stezaker’s collages have on the viewer.
The second essay, “Stezaker’s Extasie,” is billed as “a conversation between John Stezaker’s Untitled (2010) and Craig Burnett.” Cheekily presented as a dialogue between Burnett, a writer and curator, and the enigmatic collage, which appears on Love’s cover, the entry cleverly introduces readers to Stezaker’s life, work, and the format of the exhibition. Untitled (2010) acts as a curious innocent, posing questions about the artist’s references and intentions, while Burnett, tongue planted firmly in cheek, acts as a literate and patient guide.
The images in Love are allowed to sit and marinate in their strangeness, without over-explication. As Stezaker said in a 2014 interview in Interview magazine, “My work is about stilling and creating a contemplative, silent relationship with something that usually speaks and is legible—a confrontation with obscurity as opposed to transparency.” Stripped of their typical narrative and commercial contexts, the fragmented collages of this collection act as visually tantalizing ciphers, reflecting the desires and imaginings of the beholder.