Over the past year I’ve been using the simple postcard as an artistic material, curious about where this limitation of medium might lead me. (More on the postcard work in an upcoming post.) While other artists like On Kahara, Tacita Dean, and Zoe Leonard have blazed the trail for such work, the boundaries have not been pushed as far as they can be. This sense of possibility excites me.
As my own creative pursuits increasingly turn to appropriation, remixing, and creating new artworks out of found materials, I’ve enjoyed exploring the work of other artists similarly obsessed with secondhand imagery, postcards in particular. My friend, artist Jonathan Gitelson, recommended I check out The Age of Collage: Contemporary Collage in Modern Art. This exceptional book is a treasure trove and should be required reading for anyone working with the medium. (Volume two has just been released, and is also worth acquiring.)
There are a lot of compelling images to take in when thumbing through The Age of Collage, but the work of one artist in particular leapt off the page and grabbed me by the throat: John Stezaker.
Now here is an artist who knows how to turn a simple postcard into a sublime experience (no easy feat).
The British-born Stezaker is not as well known as he should be and that is a shame, for other collagists often cite him as a major influence. Born in 1949, the artist has been working for decades, but has only been embraced by collectors and art institutions recently. What took the art world so long to recognize the brilliance that other artists have long appreciated is mysterious, but may have something to do with the modest size of his works and old-school techniques, which were out of step with the prevailing fashion for many years. Nonetheless, the past decade has brought Stezaker much-deserved solo shows and inclusion in major exhibits like the Tate Triennial. It’s about time.
Stezaker’s surreal, handmade collages—comprised of film stills, publicity portraits, and postcards collected from thrift stores and bookshops—are masterful studies in contradiction. They are familiar and nostalgic, but also unexpected and strange. Like a Coen Brothers film or Flannery O’Connor short story, they walk that compelling line between comedy and tragedy. Glossy publicity photographs are sliced and juxtaposed against worn postcards, with their bumped edges and matte, creased surfaces. There is violence here, both in the final pieces and in the process of making itself. While some children turn to comic books or television for escape, Stezaker turned to art:
“‘My mother has always been horrified at how my work emerged out of childhood vandalism,” Stezaker explains in the British Journal of Photography. “I cut up and defaced books, and was regarded as very naughty for doing it….I don’t know why I felt it was necessary. But you can only get a feeling of the inviolable purity and sanctity of the emulsion of a photograph by violating it.”
There is tension in these images. The absurd, comic, and sometimes shocking juxtapositions Stezaker creates prevent his work from veering into decorative nostalgia, the kind that is readily available in many an Etsy shop. Stezaker refuses to indulge in “happy endings” of the romantic comedy sort. His images are unresolved, like real life, which makes them deeply poignant.
“Living in a culture of images is also to live in a culture that is essentially divided, fragmented,” Stezaker says. “Marriage is a word that I use a lot in my work because I’m trying to heal those division in some ways–use collage as a kind of healing process, to bring back together. Sometimes that bringing back together can be preposterous and seem comic. It’s not always to do with a happy marriage, it can be a very unhappy marriage, it can be a feeling that things can never be reconciled.”
Stezaker’s work is funny as well. His humor bubbles up in his exacting composition, as well as other visual choices. For example, he frequently leaves copyright symbols visible in his artwork, a postmodern, comic wink to our corporation-friendly, confusing copyright laws. “All property is theft,” says Stezaker. This recalls T.S. Eliot’s famous observation in The Sacred Wood: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Is the only thing that separates an artist from a vandal talent? Possibly.
As writers like Walter Benjamin have noted, we are saturated by the relentless image stream the modern world spews at us. “All the multimedia that’s around now, to me that’s montage,” Stezaker explains in The Age of Collage. “Everything is montage, we live within a montage, and to me that’s terrifying….I see collage as a way of trying to find some seams and fissure.'”
Indeed, Stezaker’s gift is the ability to cast his line into this flooded channel and fish out the images that suit his specific palette. But hunting and gathering is only half of the process. Like any talented artist, Stezaker knows how to prepare and present his catch. He forces us to pause and look. The past is vividly present, but in an entirely new form. Found images, destined for the trash-bin, are transformed into art. The dead is once again alive. After all, isn’t this the point of art—to make the impossible possible? To give birth to something beyond the reaches of public imagination?
“Indeed a kind of death of the image, in obsolescence or dysfunction, is often required for it fully to come alive as an image,” Stezaker explains in an interview with Andrew Warstat. “The image is most alive to the imagination when touched by death….Perhaps a way of thinking about the image is as an occasion for metamorphosis, which is essentially death, but also the preparation for another incarnation. This is the romantic view of the image as both transient (deathbound) and eternal.”
Long-forgotten postcards or publicity photos, when removed from their original context, present exciting possibilities for Stezaker.“When the utility in a thing ebbs or disappears,” he explains, “the material qualities of the object appear in its place: a broken pair of scissors is a more material object than a useful pair of scissors….” Think of Duchamp’s Fountain, the ultimate, iconic example of re-contextualizing a mass-produced object.
Stezaker improvises like a jazz musician, working with a limited set of skills and tools, but continually experimenting with new combinations and contrasts, moving the parts and pieces around until some lyrical combination speaks to him.
“The only thing I can say about that moment when I know that it’s right,” he says in The Age of Collage, “is that that’s the moment when I’m somehow not present–it’s there in front of me, it’s necessary, and I see it, and that’s the end of it.”
I find Stezaker’s description of his studio and creative process illuminating. As he tells Warstat, the acts of collecting and making are both essential, but require different headspaces, as well as different workspaces:
I see my work divided into two roles, the collector, and collagist….
These practices are even divided into different work areas—I tend to work upstairs during the day on the collection, and at night I work downstairs on collage.
The best time for me tends to occur after I‘ve spent a whole night working when I’m just about to go to bed, and it’s one of the reasons why I work at night. It’s when I’m so tired and my consciousness is so lowered, that all the collages that haven’t come together suddenly seem to come together. I try to preserve this: I leave them all spread out so when I come down the next day there’ll be something there – there’s usually something, perhaps not much, but something there in the morning. The day-time work involves a stilling of this flow – it’s the moment of arrest and dissimulation mostly!
Strangely, I’ve never been able to work in a studio that is separate from where I live. I first experienced this when I was at art college when I found I couldn’t work: I thought it might have been the presence of other people, that everybody seeing what you’re up to disrupted what I was doing. I felt there was something quite secretive about the act or the production of my work. This inability to work at college got me a dispensation from attendance at the Slade from Coldstream, and allowed me to work from home. I occupied no space at all. And because of the space shortage that is universal to art colleges, the arrangement was quite welcome. I attended college though, but mostly went to lectures in philosophy, film theory and art history.
I feel that work comes out of digression, and this kind of diversion requires the comfort of being at home. I do think the work comes out of the space between things and best comes out of the interface with ordinary activities. For example, if I go down to my desk to do some work, I’m already approaching it in the wrong way. But, if I am tidying up my collection of image fragments for example, I might suddenly find myself plunged into another kind of image pursuit. I suppose it’s only when you’re in the midst of it, with a momentum, that the work develops. There’s a wonderful phrase that Rilke uses in one of his letters where he talks about being in his work like the pith is in the fruit; this exactly expresses the combination of momentum and total stillness. It’s a very tiny moment, but that’s what one’s seeking, a threshold state of some kind – an opening.
Once you have seen a Stezaker collage, it’s impression does not easily fade. Measly adjectives like “haunting” or “surprising” can’t shoulder the weight of these small creations. (Perhaps this is why the artist so often turns to the deeper ideas of Kant, Benjamin, and Blanchot when talking about his art.)
Ultimately, “sublime” may be the term that comes closest to describing the effect of Stezaker’s work, for I feel a lingering sense of awe when looking at these pieces. The experience resembles that of looking out my window at Mt. Monadnock each day. The experience is constantly shifting and I never grow tired of it. I feel simultaneously dwarfed and connected. We are nothing. We are everything.
“I am often questioned about my attachment to old images,” says the artist, “for example 1940s movie stills, and I sometimes wonder if my fascination with images that come from before my birth is somehow a glimpse of a world without me: the world in my absence, which is a way of seeing the future in an image of the past. This is one of the definitions of the sublime – a vision both of primordial origins and apocalyptic destiny – an image of the world in the absence of man.”
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