Puns in the language of pictures

In a famous 1922 portrait of the vain millionairess self-promoter the Marchesa Casati, Man Ray jogged the camera in such a way that her eyes seemed doubled. She looked haunted and mad, and by deciding not to throw it away, Man Ray made a big contribution to how we read images.

At the Whitechapel Gallery a new show of almost 100 images by John Stezaker provides eye-opening lessons in that same subject. The Whitechapel is careful not to label the show a retrospective, since none of Stezaker’s silkscreens are included, but a major retrospective is what this is. With works from the 1970s to the near present, and with a consistent sure-footedness at a very high standard, this exhibition introduces to the wide public a complete artist who had been known only to aficionados.

Stezaker’s habit has been to find new readings for found images, and to adjust them in a way that compels viewers to confront their own expectations. This has been a preoccupation of artists for years: think of Richard Hamilton or Sherrie Levine, and even Gerhard Richter or Francis Bacon, wrestling with the fact that their audiences were familiar with photography and rarely exposed to paint. The digital revolution has accelerated this inquiry, not stifled it. In the digital age, mistrusting the image becomes a necessary preliminary to understanding it.

This all sounds a little dry. In Stezaker’s hands, it is anything but. At its purest, Stezaker’s intervention is a razor cut. The poster-image for the show is a found film or glamour portrait, perhaps from the early 1960s, of a conventionally pretty actress-model-whatever. Stezaker has sliced right across her face at the level of the pupils, and then collaged the pieces over another print of the same image, leaving a harsh stutter in our reading of the smooth, bland face. The violence is startling. Pictures are cheap and everywhere, but still freighted with values far above the pixel or the paper they sit upon.

Many of Stezaker’s interventions on portraits look like blindings: not only razor cuts, but masks put where eyes should be. Stezaker has made austere collages of immense purity and precision, in which apparently playful juxtapositions echo with less playful content. He is not as cruel as Ralph Steadman could be when he dragged the wet chemicals on the back of Polaroids, but can be pretty piercing all the same. He is brilliant at finding the harmonics of a profile in an unrelated picture. So in the 2007 collage “Pair IV”, a man and a woman from an old movie still (he in dinner jacket, she in pearls) slope in parallel as he leans towards her and she leans away. Their faces are replaced but still indicated by the two stone walls of a canyon in a postcard, which puts a gulf between them where in the original there had been only inches.

Sometimes he mates portraits of two different genders into a hermaphrodite third. Sometimes he uses conventional pretty (colour) postcards almost as speech bubbles between two (black-and-white) lovers. Sometimes he just cuts an image out of its context to see what we make of it alone. In spite of the teasing shocks to our expectations, they all still hold some of the commercial charm of his saccharine originals. The phrases of our shared literacy in photography are thrown back in our faces. At the same time, we are helped to conjure richer new interpretations: Stezaker invites us to refile our own internal archives.

Some of this comes from a line that includes surrealism and dada. Collage is the obvious tool for those who want pictures to clash. But Stezaker is not a new collagist in the old manner. Where Paul Citroen or John Heartfield used pictures to show several different things in the same frame, Stezaker shows images which work in several ways at once. The lineage is closer to Kurt Schwitters or even Braque, where meanings are clear in spite of resisting “capture” in a caption.

Stezaker’s accumulation of salvaged pictures, waiting to be turned into new ones, seems to be his raw material. What he is really working on is his viewers’ ingrained preconceptions of how pictures work and what to do with them. It’s like punning with a purpose; it only works because both he and his audience are so familiar with the language.

Stezaker has been a teacher as much as a practitioner, but his relative invisibility in the market is odd. His pictures are charming, often funny, recognisably his own in manner. Stezaker’s commitment to his found originals means that although he works in coherent series, reworking a formula often over many years, each piece remains unique.

It is severely undervalued in the market, but it is powerful stuff. There is plenty of pleasantly unaffected humour in the collisions of pictures engineered by Stezaker. Pretty girls with moustaches, faces that morph from sweet to sinister. But there is layer upon layer of serious inquiry beneath. Are we so inured to imagery that we do not actually see it? Can multiple readings coexist in the same picture? Stezaker works on types of imagery that are already profoundly nostalgic; his inquiry is rooted in the historical treatment of pictures. But for all that, it remains bang up to the minute.

Until March 18


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