John Stezaker’s Lingering Shadows

At The Approach, London, the artist’s latest series dissects classical Hollywood headshots and film stills, leaving only the ghostly outlines of absent stars

J
BY James Lawrence Slattery in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 03 MAR 22

In his ongoing collage series ‘Double Shadow’ (2013–21), John Stezaker unites classical Hollywood headshots and film stills. In each of the artist’s most recent works in the series, currently on display at The Approach in London, he has removed either the principal star or a silhouette from a different photograph. Images are thus comprised of two layers of paper but three (absent) figures who persist as outlines or snippets of features that remain at the borders where a body or face has been extracted. When the missing silhouette does not align with the person pictured in the frame, the absence marks the ghostly presence of a figure removed from a space in which it never existed. The minimal gestures in Stezaker’s works tremble into obscurity the longer you peer into the once-nugatory backgrounds that are left behind in the wake of the star’s disappearance.

John Stezaker
John Stezaker, Double Shadow from the series ‘Double Shadow’, 2020, collage, 26 × 21 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Approach, London; photograph: Alexander Brattell

I am reminded of the 1958 film Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock. In the film, James Stewart’s protagonist, Scottie, spirals through San Francisco, looking for the enigmatic Madeleine played by Kim Novak. Yet, even when she stands before him, Scottie cannot see who this woman is. The blues and greens in some of Stezaker’s collages evoke the film’s majestic scene where Madeleine, dressed in a grey suit, emerges through a verdant mist towards Scottie. In ‘Double Shadow’, these same hues appear as curtains of paper, two sheets overlaid as missing figures carve out the contours of the amalgamated shapes.

The annexe room of The Approach contains Kiss (2020), a film that loops a few seconds of photographs at 25 frames per second. The images depict Hollywood stars in the stages of a kiss. If you blink, the images appear to slow down; the room is awash with flickers. I notice different things in the flurry of visual information: the occasional colour image jumps out or I catch an eye peering into the camera’s lens, looking at me with a cheeky glimmer. The sequence of images seems arbitrary yet precise: while there is no sense of linear temporal flow, a circle of movement is maintained, with the kissing lips are all placed in the same central spot on the screen. The title is singular – Kiss – a particular that emerges from a crowd and causes me to wonder: when do touching lips become a kiss?

John Stezaker
John Stezaker, Double Shadow from the series ‘Double Shadow’, 2021, collage, 20 × 21 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Approach, London; photograph: Alexander Brattell

Back in the main gallery, absences contend for attention as the contours of missing bodies, limbs, facial profiles, brows or lips are deciphered. Some collage artists, such as Linder, meticulously excise images with a precision that leaves no hint of the original page. In contrast, Stezaker’s ‘Double Shadow’ works allow traces to be detected in the aftermath of the cut. Look closely and you can see the frayed edge of a skinny white margin that would once have been buried in the spine of the publication that the page has been ripped from. Whispers of features persist – eyelashes, a strand of hair, a sliver of pale skin – around the removed silhouette. In the page from which a juxtaposed image has been cut, you might see a nose or a chin emerging from a missing face, the space of an empty forehead or the nape of a neck. Sometimes, a shadow lingers on the wall of a pictured interior, a cigarette between two absent fingers, a white glove still grasping the rail of a balcony. 

John Stezaker’s ‘Double Shadow’ is at The Approach, London, until March 26

Main image: John Stezaker, Double Shadow (detail) from the series ‘Double Shadow’, 2021, collage, 23 × 17 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Approach, London; photograph: Alexander Brattell

James Lawrence Slattery is PhD candidate at the University of Manchester, UK. Their research areas include Lacanian psychoanalysis and representations of queerness in neoliberalism.

SHARE THIS