Whitechapel Gallery, London
28th January – 18th March, 2011
The Whitechapel Gallery at the foot of Brick Lane in East London has devoted the whole of its recently renovated downstairs Gallery 1 space to this first major exhibition of British artist John Stezaker. Organised and curated by the Whitechapel in collaboration with the MUDAM museum in Luxemburg and Stezaker’s London gallery The Approach, it offers free entry allowing broad general access to his remarkably coherent body of collage-based work. Stezaker is most well-known, as well as for his teaching at the Royal College of Art in London, for his collage portraits, where he takes two found photographic images and splices them together to create a new image. In Love XI (2006) for example, he takes a head and shoulder portrait of what looks like a magazine image of a fashion model from the 1960s and splices a strip of another portraits’ eyes across hers. The effect, from a slight distance is disconcerting. The eyes blend together creating a hypnotic effect, or cause the viewer’s eyes to flicker across the surface of her face, uncertain where the gaze should settle. Upon a closer look, the textures and cuts of the collage technique are more visible, revealing the simple technique that Stezaker has used. This portrait, around A4 in size provides a good insight into the persistent focus of Stezaker’s work throughout his career. The main effect of such a large exhibition, with work from throughout his career hung regularly along each of the gallery walls, is to reveal the obsessive repetition, with which he would work. Almost all of the collages follow a similar pattern – taking two images and combining them in some way to create a third, creating an immediate visual impact. Such repetition, however, allows for an investigation into how the effect is not always the same. While some such as Love XI are most impressive as perception-confusing illusion, other such as Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) LXI (2007) have an air of playful melancholy. Here two very different portraits, of a male and female star, are combined through a dramatic splice down the middle to create a strange hybrid. Stezaker’s work operates not only as visual trick though. By drawing attention to his own techniques of composition, it also draws attention to the processes of representation in the film world he draws from, to the emotional manipulation of the original images, as well as to the creative possibilities of ‘remixing’ existing material into new emotional force. A work such as Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) LXI, drawing attention to the soft focus of the female portrait compared to the sharp focus and serious gaze of the male, playfully mocks the stereotypical gender conventions of such Hollywood portraits. Other work such as Pair IV (2007) has a more surreal impact. Here a postcard of a gorge has been stuck over the faces of two Hollywood lovers. While immediately visually humorous, the work also makes new connections, representing the unconscious inner chasm separating them perhaps, as well as using a visual shorthand used for this that can be immediately understood. As Darwent has argued in his review (2011) the work may be funny but it is also “revealing of something”, and it is remarkable how much can be revealed from the repetition of such simple compositions. Dillon (2011) points to the nostalgia evoked by the old portraits. It is true that they are not only critical but also suggest the homage of pastiche. Dillon also describes their ‘uncanny’ nature which is the predominant response on first viewing the collages. Something familiar is transformed into something unfamiliar. Where Art You (2011) describes his work as “like a plastic surgeon” but it is actually more subtle and playful than this. Stezaker does not try to hide the cuts and cracks in his images but makes them very much part of the work, self-consciously drawing attention to the image’s implication in history and its expected mode of response. The collages are all small, causing clusters of people in the gallery to gather around each one, laughing, often, at first, and then examining in more detail. The exhibition, in a non-commercial space, suggests through its partnership with Louis Vuitton how Stezaker’s work has now become an easily recognizable part of contemporary commercial image culture such as advertising and fashion. What the exhibition also successfully does however, is through its relentless linearity, reveal the importance of having one simple idea, persisting with it and pushing it for years, in order to see how far it can go.
Darwent, C. (2011) ‘John Stezaker’, The Independent, Sunday 30th January, 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/john-stezaker-whitechapel-art-gallery-london-2198232.html, [accessed 28th February 2011].
Dillon, B. (2011) ‘John Stezaker: What a carve up’, The Guardian, Saturday 29th January, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/jan/29/john-stezaker-whitechapel-gallery, [accessed 28th February 2011].
Where Art You (2011) ‘Review of John Stezaker’, Art Review, 10th February 2011, http://www.artreview.com/profiles/blogs/review-of-john-stezaker-at?xg_source=activity, [accessed 28th February 2011].