Surrealism’s Unfinished Business

The art of the collagiste is essentially the art of the scavenger, the opportunistic thief.

Michael GloverOctober 24, 2020

“At the Edge of Pictures: John Stezaker, Works 1975–1990” at Luxembourg + Co., London, England; installation view (photo by Damien Griffith, all images courtesy Luxembourg + Co., London)

LONDON — John Stezaker, English collagiste terrible, lives in the small and unfashionable coastal town of St Leonard’s on Sea, minding his own business, nurturing his own vast archive of vintage images. This is a man who has no particular urge to be of his time.

Stezaker (b.1949) has been in and out of the public eye ever since the 1980s, when he got almost as big as a young artist can get. Then he chose to get smaller again. For years he taught at the Royal College of Art. Now he is very much out in the world again, as an artist.

At the Edge of Pictures: John Stezaker, Works 1975–1990 at Luxembourg + Co., covering the years 1975-90 and beautifully hung in a serene, spacious, well-appointed, second-floor gallery in Mayfair — the first historical survey he has ever enjoyed — seems to beg a question. Or two.

Isn’t it a touch bizarre that Stezaker is here, ensconced amidst all this prosperity? Yes.

And, well, perhaps no.

John Stezaker, “Untitled (He)” (1989-90), collage

No, not too bizarre, because collage is an art of smash-and-grab impertinence. It goes where it chooses to go. You could argue that every wall that a Stezaker occupies turns a touch bizarre by the artwork’s very presence in the room.

And yes, of course, because the art of the collagiste is essentially the art of the scavenger, the opportunistic thief. He grabs. He re-makes. In Stezaker’s case, he often re-makes small. But it is a smallness that seems to happily accommodate, as we stare into a collage’s black surround (and many of these early works have black surrounds), some fantastical prospect of the cinematically monumental…

What exactly is it to be a collagiste now though? Is it possible to play this pleasing old game without risking the charge of anachronism? Aren’t we done with all that stuff? Aren’t Ernst and all the rest of the gang long and undeniably dead? And, what is more, what is it to have been a dogged collagiste for almost half a century?

Stezaker believes that there is so much more to be done with the collage, that Surrealism, for example, has left so much unfinished business in its wake, the fact for example, that the Surrealist project — that deep-down interrogation of the unconscious — gave images a power to go their own way, to take over. We are at their mercy. And alongside all the making, he has been a theorist, a teacher, and a historian of collage. It intrigues him, and always will, what collage can conceal and expose, how worlds in miniature can seem to exist on the grand scale.

John Stezaker, “Untitled (Film Still Collage)” (1978), collage (Private Collection)

Stezaker is in the business of the rehabilitation of mechanically produced images, things believed by so many to be long dead, things that existed en masse before the wonders of the digital world consumed us all, those years defined by a happy excess of paper, paper, paper.

The picture postcard. The old film still. The sad stuff of junk shops everywhere. The leftovers. That which is no longer in currency. Can these old bones live? he asks himself.

If there are actors in these stills, you can be almost assured that they will not be recognizable – only the face of Faye Dunaway sings out in this show. Stezaker regards recognizability as a distraction, a needless bit of storytelling, nothing less than a trap…

It wasn’t always like this. In Stezaker’s early days, he was a conceptualist, a finicky man of words, words, words, and everything always so fastidiously minimal. But by the time we hit the first of the works in this show, the words have all been rubbed out.

John Stezaker, “Untitled (Observatory)” (1989), collage

You could say that Stezaker’s works as objects are, generally speaking, very simple and pared-back fabrications. The sheer simplicity — the threat of near-perfectibility — is where their artfulness rests. He does not add piece to piece to piece. This is not one of Hannah Hoch’s noisily swarmy Dada madhouses. Usually there are two fragmentary images, and at most three, in conversation with each other.

There is a single point of meeting. The cut, the disruptive cut, the cut that makes nonsense of our all-too-hasty wish to tell ourselves a story that will click shut like a box, is what counts; its angle, the sharp severity of its trueness, and how one piece lies upon another; the tension and the absorbing be-puzzlement generated by the positioning of one image against another; the space that often seems to open up between those images, and what that space means…

The main image, the one that lies beneath, is often monochromatic, the one that overlays it, often in color. The black-and-white film still. The color picture postcard, which often obliterates an entire face.

Where did — and does — his image bank come from? Like Max Ernst, he generally goes for images that antedate his own life span — a still from a German film of the 1940s, and even older postcards from nature, perhaps — the rushing of a waterfall, for example. He likes obliteration — of an entire face, for example, one image blinding another.

Masking and blindness are everywhere. We see though a glass darkly.

At the Edge of Pictures: John Stezaker, Works: 1975-1990 continues at Luxembourg + Co. (2 Savile Row, London, England) through December 5. The exhibition is curated by Yuval Etgar.

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