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The Subversive Force of Images

Review by David Gunn, Director of www.theincidental.com

“I didn’t want to be involved with the currency of images in any way … I was interested in the obsolescence of images”.

As John Stezaker reflects upon the genesis of his artistic practice, he returns again and again to these ideas: removing images from circulation, staging their obsolescence. And at first, as you walk around this exemplary retrospective of his work at Whitechapel, his claim seems oddly incongruent. For Stezaker’s work seems intimately concerned with the social life of the image. Luxuriating in the re-presentation of the found; reinvigorating images with the most simple of transformations. An old film still turned upside down; photographs of a police line inter-spliced with the calm of a ballerina’ studio, a portrait of a cinema starlet obscured by a faded postcard of a rural landscape.

Cut ups, Cutouts and Occlusion- built upon a small handful of such techniques, Stezaker’s work employs them to create a surprisingly subtle range of visual and associative effects. A collage such as Bridge (B) 1 (2007) offers a typical example. A boy is seated on a bed, staring over towards a male figure, dressed formally. The latter leans forward, but his face is obscured by the image of a bridge that seems to emerge from his head and stretch across the centre of the composition. The supporting struts of the bridge connect with the bars at the bottom of the child’s bed.

From these simple elements emerges a finely balanced series of tensions. On a formal level, the two contrasted images are clearly distinct in origin (the monochrome precision of the bromide cinema stills and the gaudy colour of mid-century postcards), but they are simultaneously connected by a patina of age, a shared sense of images whose time has passed. Compositionally, two provocative points of visual connection are contrasted with a more general discontinuity in content and composition. And at a more symbolic level, the bridge offers an ambiguous metaphor of relations between the two figures, seeming at once to invoke both a sense of alienated distance and of direct connection. At once, these two images fuse into a common composition and meaning and also assert their own autonomy, their lack of relation. Here and throughout Stezaker’s work, the super-imposed images remain enigmatically suspended, calling forth from viewers an interpretative act that the artworks neither endorse nor deny.

As an artist who began work in the 1970s, brought up on Debord’s situational aesthetics and the détournement of images, it is tempting to locate Stezaker’s work within this context. But it soon becomes clear that Stezaker’s intentions are rather different. Indeed, as many critics are quick to note, his collages often bring to mind the legacy of a far earlier movement, the Surrealists. And it is no surprise, since his collages often seem to echo both the tone and compositional strategies of de Chirico’s clinical landscapes or the amended figures of Magritte.

But not all Surrealists were created equal, and nor were they always in agreement. And although Stezaker’s work may visually allude to the mainstream of the Surrealist enterprise, his underlying aesthetics seem to hold more in common with that of the Surrealists’ estranged cousin, George Bataille. As Breton carried Surrealism into increasingly socio-economic realms, embroiled with socialist aspirations and the political tumult of the 1920s and 30s, Bataille pursued more gnomic aims, concerned with moving away from a world of productive labour and the “world of things”. For him, acts such as sacrifice were examples of this: “the sacrificer needs the sacrifice in order to remove himself from the world of things”, the tragedy of humanity’s lost intimacy, and the tragic attempts to attain “the moral summit … being suspended in the beyond of oneself, at the limit of nothingness”. Where Breton sough political action and the unlocking of submerged symbols, Bataille pursued non-utility, the non-productive share, total obsolescence.

In many ways, Bataille provides a valuable means to read Stezaker’s work. For Stezaker’s images also seem to be suspended “beyond themselves”, in configurations that reject their original purpose. Indeed, it is no accident that for both Bataille and Stezaker, symbolic violence is a key strategy. And where Bataille identifies sacrifice as a means to reject “productive value”, so too the cuts and splices in Stezaker’s work seem to operate as scars, techniques to denude the images of their functional value, to liberate them from their “productive” life in the world of commercial images.

The Masks series, given extensive coverage in this exhibition, evoke this idea at its most powerful. A series of Hollywood stars and starlets, their faces occluded by images of caverns and gullies, with the most delicate of visual echoes between the images: a chasm sketches the line of a forehead; rolling waves become a lock a hair. Using images once used to construct and promote a public identity, these collages neutralise this very identity, offering a vista and a meaning that are both hauntingly open. And here, in these flat image of cataracts and voids, Stezaker constructs a work that is all surface, an emptying out of meaning as he works against not only the commercialisation of the image in consumer society, but also the instrumentalisation of the image within contemporary artistic and activist practice.

Not all works operate at this intensity. But at its best, this retrospective is a remarkable collection of works. And perhaps most surprisingly of all, in creating works that are so entirely self-contained and free from the referential baggage so common to much of contemporary art, these somber processes result in work that is remarkably accessible, and so obviously compelling to the diverse visitors to the show. This show comes highly recommended.

John Stezaker at Whitechapel Gallery continues until 18 March 2011. Admission Free. For more information please visit www.whitechapelgallery.org

Image:
John Stezaker Love XI, 2006, collage. Private Collection, Switzerland. © The Artist.

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