Thursday, 17 March 2011

John Stezaker at The Whitechapel Gallery

Well, better late than never. This retrospective closes tomorrow and was worth getting to see on its final evening. John Stezaker has been superimposing, juxtaposing, cutting up and cutting out found images for about forty years. The results are often surreal, sometimes challenging and always witty.

If the exhibition had been sold on a single style of image it was the superimposition of landscape postcards on the more powdered contours of artist headshots. Technically the fun is in Stezaker's matching key features of the landscape to the shapes you might have expected to see on the face (the identity of the head is unimportant). There's also the visual perfume of having a colour landscape on a black and white face.

What I really responded to - and this goes for other series throughout the exhibition - was the twist this brings to our perception of depth. There must be some term for it. You look at a face. You can then mentally compare that image with  images taken from direct experience of faces and the 3D space they occupy. The process is the same for a picture of a landscape, although the scale is radically different.

So as we look at Stezaker's faces, quite apart from the incongruity of (for example) bridge arches where eyes should be, we find ourselves trying to process the same shapes in two wildly different sets of dimensions.

This dimension-trompe pops up throughout Stezaker's work. Perhaps the clearest illustration is in the Escher-like  pairings of columns where the eye travelling down finds itself travelling up. It's partly the invention of Stezaker and partly his attention to what's available in the found image. I love the reflected image of a woman looking at a man playing the piano - the right way up she looks at him, but in the inverted reflection she seems to be looking out of the image rather than into it. No manipulation, just a re-focusing of the image's potential.

These challenges to the visual conventions of the viewer are typical of the school to which so much of Stezaker's work belongs, surrealism. The Mask series is clearly of the lineage of Magritte with his incongruous content overlays and unexpected silhouettes. It's also typical of pieces by Dali creating figures and faces from the conflagration of everyday objects. Like Dali, Stezaker's fortuitous overlays hint at psychological intent as well - my favourite of the postcard series, Negotiable Space, actually uses a photograph taken inside a therapist's room. There are pictures with privations, a black silhouette left in the foreground or a square cut out of a focal line (like a spot the ball competition) in the Tabula Rasa series. These may be psychologically provoking but they are not as instantly interesting as the collages.

Beside these there are further dimensional conundrums in the facial pairings of the Marriage collages, one half of one face the other half of another. The two halves split along the foremost line of the face play with the sense of three dimensions on the flat plane of the paper. My first thought was of the cubist portraits of Picasso and Braque, although I think there's less technical intent in this series than there is a sense of fun or, at best, fascination. This anthropomorphism reaches its zenith in the strange pairing of nudes that make up Fall VIII, an alien composite that would appeal to the Chapman brothers.

It's not an infallible collection - I couldn't see the appeal of the landscape detail series Stolen Sky, nor the semi-narrative Enter... Exit arrangments. I did have a lot of fun trying to adjust my imagination's perspective in front of a couple represented as a canyon though. Well worth the last-minute effort.

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