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John Stezaker

The Approach W1, London, UK


John Stezaker collects postcards, movie portraits, stills and lobby cards with an archivist’s zeal. But the way in which they are re-functioned as art is not at all congruent with such an approach. One of the things that makes Stezaker’s practice so intriguing is the extent to which the works more or less follow Conceptual art orthodoxy up to when he makes his ‘cut’, bringing the two images together, after which all other decisions are intuited. The ‘idea’ of the works is straightforward and consistent, and Stezaker has constructed them in much the same way for more than 20 years: two different images are brought together, each destroyed in some important way in order to birth a new one. Yet the logic, or meaning, of the new images remains mysterious.

‘Masks’ is the inaugural show at the Approach’s new West End space, collecting together a number of works from the ongoing ‘Masks’ series. Each contains the same elements: a movie portrait or film still and a postcard (normally featuring an image of a landscape). The cards are all placed squarely on the photographs, never at an angle, sometimes inverted and sometimes overlapping the edge of the photograph. They are normally positioned so that the face of the actor or actors is obscured. In one, Pair VIII (2007), a couple are embracing on a bed. The man, his face not obscured, moustachioed, and with a cigarette held limply in the corner of his mouth, stares longingly into the eyes of some forgotten starlet. The only part of her face visible is her chin and heavily glossed lips. The rest is obscured by a postcard of a painted image of a stream running through a dense wood. The man’s eyes are therefore diverted from the woman’s face and instead follow the line of the stream up through the trees.

In Mask XLVIII (2007), an actress poses, her hair and chin framing a photographic postcard image of a small waterfall. When seen together, the cascading water from the postcard resembles hair and the anonymous sitter’s hair looks like shimmering water. The effect might be called ‘uncanny’, but perhaps this is to rely too heavily on existing discourses historically called upon to critically engage with the collage technique.

Where these works depart from the biting satire found in Dadaist collage or in the Surrealists’ playful plumbing of the ‘unconscious’ is the point at which the strategies of Minimalist and Conceptual art are evoked. This puts one in mind of the theoretical dingdong about the relationship between the historical and the neo avant-gardes, under the terms of Peter Bürger’s famous distinction, reigniting (intentionally or not) the debate about the validity of an ‘aesthetic’ avant-garde. Serious critical work on Stezaker is sadly thin on the ground, but hopefully this will be prompted by recent commercial and curatorial interest.

Dan Kidner


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About this review

Published on 12/12/07
by Dan Kidner

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