Words I associate with the work of John Stezaker as I walk round his current exhibition in the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, include: cool (by which I mean contrary to hot, as opposed to fashionable, although some would say cool is fashionable), subtle, precise, calm, quiet (possibly silent), still, deeply-moving, considered, serious, wry, funny (especially the Marriage series). For those who don’t know his work, Stezaker creates collage in several growing series, and has been doing modestly for decades, usually by combining two images, sourced from promotional photographs of actors or scenes from old black and white films, postcards of landscapes and waterfalls, or simply cutting shapes or figures out of an image. Having the appearance of extreme simplicity, the work shows the artist’s hand and mind to be wholly present, although his physical intervention is minimal. The placement of one image over another is so precise it is clear that the vast majority of the work involved is in the looking for the right combination of images and the absolute correct placement, before very quickly sticking them down. There is an almost nostalgic visceral pleasure in the physicality of the work, the photographic prints, the postcards, the clear evidence of scissors and glue. Although you can understand Stezaker’s work from a digital reproduction, you get more from seeing the original physical work.
In the Mask series, where postcards obscure the faces of film stars, the forms in the depicted landscapes and waterfalls subtly mirroring the forms in the obscured face, Stezaker reveals to us the hidden depths behind the masks we present to the world, the existential anguish lying just beneath the facade we project, the turmoil under the thin and fragile surface. In the Waterfall series, where a postcard of a waterfall separates a leading man from his leading lady, we witness the impenetrable distance which separates us all from each other, even lovers. Stezaker tells us we are all inherently unknowable, yet intimately connected, islands. In the Tabula Rasa series, where one character in a scene is obscured by a white rectangle cut out in perspective to show the direction of the obscured individual’s scrutiny, the attention of everyone else in the scene being on the white rectangle, Stezaker demenstrates we are each a blank screen onto which it is others who project their ideas of who it is we are, or who we appear to be in relation to them. Or, conversely, is it only I that can’t see the real me? Am I in fact revealed only through the gaze of others? I only exist because I am seen by others. Through John Stezaker’s work I feel I know him, I feel a connection to him, I feel I understand how he thinks and how he feels, but, of course, I don’t. I know only his work, which is his mask, his projection, his tabula rasa.