John Stezaker's collage entitled Mask (Film Portrait Collage) CLXXIII, 2014, comprises only two elements, a pair of found photographs: a smiling 1940s Hollywood publicity portrait and a picture postcard depicting a stone bridge at Killarney, Ireland, from perhaps sometime between the wars. The postcard is simply pasted over the Hollywood actor's visage, but it's deceptively simple. Stezaker's gesture compels viewers to see the arches of the bridge as a skull's eye cavities. It triggers an immediate anthropomorphic impulse. Yet simultaneously it evokes a whole series of artistic motifs from the modernist era. For instance, Edgar Allan Poe's reworking of associations between masquerade and death; Salvador Dalí's "paranoiac-critical method", where images suggest multiple things; and Max Ernst's 1920s collage series that evokes the uncanny. Stezaker's collages share so many similarities with these themes that the topic of Surrealism is unavoidable. Most of his artworks combine two found photographs, but Stezaker's practice, as it is shown at CCP, unfolds into a variety of other deceptively simple techniques.
The display of artworks exhibited in "John Stezaker: Lost World" at CCP—curated by Robert Leonard for the City Gallery Wellington: Te Whare Toi, New Zealand—is organised into neat categories based on Stezaker's various techniques of adding, subtracting and combining photographs. The exhibition's transparent curating focuses viewers' attention onto each individual artwork, but it's also sympathetic to the intrinsic sensibilities the artworks have in common. Each little earthquake seems self-contained in its separate frame, but fault lines extend further afield. While Stezaker is known for his collages, "Lost World" includes some work in other mediums. Crowd, 2013, is a video where each single frame is a distinct image of a crowd scene. The complicated ensembles dance by so fast that the effect is pulsating.
Stezaker works with an archive of 1940s and '50s movie stills, Hollywood publicity portraits and vintage postcards. The studios generally made contact prints from 8 x 10 inch negatives. Thus, all of his artworks are roughly that size as well. Marriage CXIII, 2012, employs two actor's portraits: a man and a woman. It merges one half of each face into a new character. The two pairs of lips match up, and their separate expressions form an enigmatic smile. The photographs are cut sharply and other features don't quite align. The eyes look in different directions. Yet, Stezaker reverses forms and negative space in his pairing. In this case, the back of a sofa on which the woman sits converges with the man's shoulder. While the seams don't flow smoothly, the sofa displaces the woman's shoulder in the combined appearance. The image jostles. Viewers only glimpse the new character, as the actors' personae assert their separate identities in a game of duck, rabbit, duck. Likewise, the amalgamated character portrays an ambivalent gender, but it's always already predicated on the fixed gender roles that were a natural given in the mode of the source material.
Pair XXVII, 2015, is an amalgamation of a postcard of a tourist walkway affixed to the sheer cliffs enclosing both sides of the Arre River in Switzerland and a Hollywood film still from the late 1950s. The postcard is pasted directly over the still that shows the protagonists of the film, The Tunnel of Love, 1958, Doris Day and Richard Widmark, as they kiss. Well, it seems that way; Stezaker has cut and compressed the scene to exaggerate the effect. The images are aligned so that the cliff faces replace and loosely resemble the actors' faces. Stezaker "reanimates"—in his words—his source images through his simple techniques. Reanimation describes the jostle and the tension the pairings create. In this case the play on words, the narrow aperture and the obscured kiss establish the tension that psychoanalysis attributes to desire. However, Stezaker's word—reanimate—also implies that his source materials are outmoded. Perhaps Stezaker's way of working is anachronistic too. But more than that, the artist repeats, as if by rote, the themes and conceptual devices that were introduced into modern art a century ago.
Camera (Assisted Readymade), 2015, is a still from a 1940s Hollywood war thriller that the artist has cropped. It shows a convicted man being strapped to the guillotine. Upright before being hinged into position, he appears head-and-shoulders above the warden and guards who look up with anxious expressions. Stezaker cuts the entire photograph at the height of the condemned man's neck, doing to the photograph the violence the image implies. Needless to say, it's comic violence. But the artist's wit comes packaged with historical references. The sub-title, Assisted Readymade, indicates Stezaker is re-deploying the creative repertoire of Dada and Surrealism. Readymades are generally associated with objects, but André Breton also used the term to describe Ernst's early collages in the 1920s. Similar to Stezaker, Ernst made collages from visual material that was outmoded at the time.
Rosalind Krauss's commentary on Ernst's collages provides a compelling way to interpret Stezaker's work. Fleshing out the relationships between Surrealism and the workings of the unconscious, Krauss associates the artistic use of readymades with Freud's notion of screen memories—an explanation of how memories overdetermine other memories. Ernst's collages, she argues, reconstruct a primal scene and project it onto a screen of readymade images. In this respect, Ernst's collages develop a series of narratives from latent content in the source material, for example, in The Master's Bedroom, 1920. (Krauss even embellishes the story of Ernst's artistic emergence with colourful details, alluding to rumours of a ménage à trois between Ernst, Paul Éluard and Gala.) In comparison, when Stezaker's reanimates images from his archive, he does it at the expense of narrative. He cuts photographs that are full of stories: scenes from Hollywood and postcards from holidays. And like waking from a dream, these stories evaporate in the jostle of misapprehension and illusion. Compulsive. Distilled. Whether the drama of Surrealism is intrinsically tied to its times or the repetition of its techniques in Stezaker's collages reanimates it is an open question.
Tim Alves is a writer and a sessional teacher at Monash University.
Title image: John Stezaker, Mask (Film Portrait Collage) CLXXIII, 2014, collage, 20 x 17.6 cm. Courtesy of The Approach, London.)