Through November 19, 2011
By Marcelino Stuhmer
Censorship is the mother of metaphor.
Jorge Luis Borges
Landscapes and Nudes at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts is a rare opportunity to see work by British artist John Stezaker, who has gained wide artistic influence and international recognition during the last decade. Stezaker’s reputation has been steady in Europe since the late 1960s, first as a conceptual artist until he shifted his focus solely to the found photographic image and collage. His collages juxtapose antique postcards, black and white photographs of landscapes, portraits, publicity and film stills, photographic studies of the nude and body movement, as well as cropped, visibly aged newsprint images. The collages on view date from 1978, with many new works that have not been exhibited before.
Stezaker’s constructed realities come from his immense research archive of photographs ranging from the early 1900s to the 1970’s consisting mostly of scarce, forgotten images that lie just beyond recognition. He has been compiling amateur photographs, postcards, old magazines, all sorts of books, and stills from film encyclopedias for decades, images found at second hand bookstores, antique stores, and flea markets. He has stated that the effects of the photographic image on both the personal and collective psyche are central to his artistic intention. The physicality of the yellowing, scuffed, and scratched photographic objects are both part of the magic of a remembered past and a present moment of visual decay. In Stezaker’s most common formal technique, he creates strong visual relationships between two images, one strategically placed directly on top of another. The use of just two found images may sound simple, but it is a most difficult operation to pull off with the kind of certainty, confidence, and belief one finds in Stezaker’s highly intuitive selection and editing process. The top image in this two-part equation is either a small image placed in a specific position over a larger image, or a precisely cut image corresponding directly to the bottom image. They are dazzling optical anomalies, causing the viewer’s mind to create a hallucinatory third image; the viewer is thus always suspended in the moment of both making and viewing the image.
Underworld XIV (2011) consists of two contrasting landscape photographs, most likely postcards. The first image is cut in half horizontally. Despite splitting the image, one can clearly see an urban street intersection with near and far sidewalks lined with lampposts. The lampposts recede in perspective, crossing the entire image and visually connecting the near and opposite sides of the street. On the far side of the intersection, the lampposts turn the corner to recede towards the center of the image. The second image of a rushing waterfall includes two large Modernist style buildings on either side of an enormous bridge that links the two riverbanks. Stezaker turned the severed cityscape image upside down and placed it carefully on top of the waterfall image. In this orientation, the space across the street perfectly reflects the space between the riverbanks, and the perspective of the receding lampposts appears to align perfectly with the bridge and the buildings of the other image. Furthermore, the lampposts going around the corner across the street converge with both sides of the building on the far side of the river. The resulting optical illusion creates a structure reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe’s broad buildings whose beauty lies in their perfect proportion. The columns (the upside down lampposts) create large, beautifully spaced corniced windows that push the structure upwards into the sky. Yet the waterfront building is partially sunken into the earth, tragically throwing off the perfection, perhaps a nuanced suggestion of the failure of Modernist architecture with its terminal hideous mutations visible in every contemporary city. Underworld XIV is simultaneously an uncanny illusion of and allusion to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous house Falling Water in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Wright’s desire to gracefully integrate a Modernist counterweight to the natural setting of a serene waterfall instead appears as a building and bridge overtaken by a deluge. The lampposts on the near sidewalk of the intersection in Stezaker’s Underworld XIV extend up from the bridge where they seem to momentarily hold up the sky, or hold the street and thus the world, upside down.
Without irony or cheekiness, Stezaker also includes several found photographs unaltered, which are so uncanny they appear to be Stezaker collages. There is something profound in the fact that these photographs are so akin to his own hybrid creations that they are nearly impossible to identify within the exhibition, unless one focuses on the absence or presence of the collages’ noticeable cut. Stezaker has spoken about his admiration for Duchamp, and this implicates the reverence for the photograph as the ultimate readymade. Stezaker captures Duchamp’s poetics of chance and the transcendent beauty of mass-produced objects taken or cut out of context. These objects would otherwise serve a banal existence in the real world as purely utilitarian, and eventually become useless except as antique objects of wonder. Two of Stezaker’s readymade collages include upside down reflections in a river or canal, the mirrored buildings and trees slightly moving and shifting. They bring to mind Monet’s On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1868), where a tree and its foliage block the view of buildings across the river that are impressionistically reflected in the water.
Within the 3rd Person Series, are four distinct sets, each set consisting of between two and seven pieces. For this series, Stezaker has cut out one-inch square portions of larger newspaper images revealing only tiny glimpses of urban settings where silhouetted figures stand among distant steps and light posts, removed from the distant periphery of unknown, yet undoubtedly common source images. Giving these shadowy figures primary status makes these fragments suddenly familiar, though they would have gone completely unnoticed within the original photographs. The dark figures appear as extras in a fictional film, aestheticising their engulfment within a large, unbounded reality that exists far beyond the images’ borders. This operation is reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), in which the final panning out extends all the way up into the clouds, turning the isolated, larger-than-life fashion photographer cum paranoid investigator into just another suspicious silhouette that disappears into a large color field of green grass. We are all cursory identities within what Guy de Bord coined 45 years ago as the Society of the Spectacle. These figures are anonymous, unknowns, abandoned, long forgotten, or good as dead, yet Stezaker focuses on them as the main actors, as odd and powerfully emotive vehicles. These “nobodies” who are at the periphery of perception become the subjects fanning our own contemporary fears. The real lives of those shadows create inextricable ties to our own identities; we are those stranded figures fading into the periphery. Our bodies are nearly always captured on a surveillance camera somewhere, defining us as our own worst fear as we become the other.
Stezaker references Dadaist appropriation and surrealist collage and assemblage, while simultaneously addressing the loss of the photographic object and the disintegration of film celluloid in the digital age. Stezaker creates visual links across temporal, spatial, and phenomenological boundaries, and through the use of the actual image object he demonstrates the transformation of life into matter. Behind glass, the viewer can only explore and touch the image’s physicality with his/her eyes. This forced distance, and the metaphoric and literal cut through which the collages are assembled, place the viewer within the historic, social, cultural, and political scope of the invention and use of photographic technology and its contemporary dissolution within globalized interconnectivity.
Stezaker’s career has been a consistent search to discern how found photographs operate in the contemporary world. They are lost objects of familiarity and estranged human realities: poetic images with a temporal thread that has been cut and undone, yet remains inextricably tangled. Throughout our lives we long to regain the past, and search for it in places where our unconscious dreams and desires become visibly palpable. Stezaker takes us to the edge of reality where hallucination and perception, language and being, gently yet effectively collide.
Marcelino Stuhmer lives in Philadelphia and is an Assistant Professor of Painting at the University of the Arts. He earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and attended artist residencies at Skowhegan, and the Rijksakadmie in Amsterdam. Among his exhibitions in Europe and North America, he has shown work at Fons Welters Gallery in Amsterdam, the Essl Museum in Vienna, Optica Center for Contemporary Art in Montreal, and the Chicago Cultural Center.