Rediscovering John Stezaker

Although all eyes and ears have been geared towards London Fashion Week this month, an extensive collection of work from a must-see artist is currently being exhibited at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. John Stezaker, an artist who focuses on approaching the photographic image in surprising, revelatory and ironic ways, has been productive for many decades – even been hailed as a major influence near the end of the 20th century, and theorised extensively. Despite this, until recently he stayed on as a tutor at London’s Royal College of Art for many years. Now, in a market that has, so to speak, “rediscovered” his work, Stezaker’s first wide survey show is in London until 18th March.

Worcester-born Stezaker’s works require an interesting mixture of close inspection and passing impression to work its magic on the viewer. He is clearly intrigued by juxtapositions; he merges, in a slightly absurd and completely entrancing way, old portraits, natural landscapes, classic film stills, and vintage postcards. The displacement is at first confusing – even a little unsettling – until one realises the precise placement and cropping of the superimposed images somehow continue the form of the image below. Optical illusion? Not exactly: the unity really is there, unexpected yet naturally coherent. Facial features take on their “double” in nature: where eyes should be, a double-arched bridge over a country stream provides the hint; the profiles of a ’50s couple morph into two rocky cliff faces; tufts of foliage mimic the form of an old man’s wispy hair. This is Stezaker’s 2006 Masks series, striking in its surreal tone and disorienting in the power it exercises over warping the visual experience of the viewer.

Also among the exhibits is his 2007 Marriage series, which is a downright celebration of slicing, cropping, repositioning, excluding. It is what we are saturated with in the media today – photomanipulation – at its roots: simple, effective, and artistically-motivated. Using classic black-and-white publicity portraits of Hollywood’s golden era film stars, an investigation of identity, androgyny, harmony and irreconcilable differences is undertaken. Ending up with a portrait that is neither one nor the other but a new, slightly grotesque and infinitely more revelatory face, Stezaker brings a certain tension to the photo. What happens when the portrait, usually focused fully on a singular face, expression, pose and identity – is invaded by a second, equally attention-demanding persona? A subtle but violent struggle ensues in the viewer’s eye as both halves of the double image grapple for visual dominance.

Blurring the boundaries between genders, meanings, landscape, portraits, nature and man, each layer of the visual opens up new paths of seeing – sometimes quite literally, as the alignment of perspective in some of these odd pairings are really astounding. These are indeed best described as visual representations of metaphor itself.

A large and comprehensive show featuring over 90 of his works ranging from the ’70s to the present, this exhibition is definitely one not to be missed.

The John Stezaker exhibition is taking place at Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 18th March 2011, after which it will be touring to Luxembourg and the US

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