Saturday, December 27, 2008

Marriage and Masks by John Stezaker

A recent discovery of mine and perhaps one of the best kept secrets of collage from the past 25 years is the artist John Stezaker. Two books from Ridinghouse/Karsten Schubert feature his intriguing constructions, Marriage (2007) and Masks (2008).

In Marriage, Stezaker uses an archive of movie star publicity portraits he acquired to slice up and find new assemblages of the human face. At once playful and grotesque he matches halves of each portrait, combining them into one image, and transforms former representations of fame and perfection into the macabre. These 'marriages' disrupt the symmetry of the face and draw attention to the contrasts that seem to lie on and under the surface of expression.

It is additionally appropriate that he has chosen to perform such experiments with Hollywood filmstar publicity photos which present a fictional mask to the public while concealing reality beneath. Stezaker's combinations reveal their artifice through the obvious ridge from the razorblade or scissor that dissects each image. In laying one over another they become a perverse illusion where the mind desires a more perfect union but the form keeps the process he has chosen apparent.

The two images may come together perfectly at the edge of a mouth or nostril while other parts of the face slide away from one another. Gender gets confused and man becomes woman or vice versa introducing a second transgressive 'secret' life underneath. Mood and emotion fair no better when combined producing wall-eyed creatures seemingly ready for the asylum.

19 of Stezaker's film portrait collages are presented in Marriage and each appears as an object complete with drop shadow, bent corners and the natural wear of the originals. The book may be thin and the edit small but more would have been overkill. Cecelia Jardemar contributes a smart introduction to the work entitled Unspeakable Faces.

In Stezaker's Masks he continues his exploration of combining images and portraits but now utilizes vintage postcards as the second layer.

Using formal intersections between each image as a guide, he positions the postcard over the faces of the publicity stills to form a literal mask. These contrasting elements are playful, surreal and often grotesque (many of the postcards depict grottos after all) and by blocking any signifier of emotion from the face in the publicity still seem to draw attention to the workings of the mind. The postcards depict representations of space and draw the viewer's gaze inward - beyond the picture plane and into the subject's head - as opposed to creating just another surface.

This deceptively simple act of placing one image over another appeals to me in more complex ways that the cutting and joining found in Marriage. The mind swims with the possibilities of reason behind these works that make their repeated viewings as compelling as the first.

The last four plates in Masks make attempts at placing one postcard over multiple individual publicity stills not of individuals but couples. All titled Nest (there are apparently 6 or more versions) they feature a hand-colored postcard of an owl sitting on a tree branch that has been placed between an embracing man and woman. Either because of the repetition of postcard or the vague implication of the pairings, these feel more forced than the others and leave me scratching my head trying to figure out if these are a natural extension of the first or a wrong turn.

Masks is a companion to Marriage as each book uses the same design, trim size and length. Clean and handsome, these two are hopefully the first in a continuing series of books that will explore each of Stezaker's projects. Masks includes another thought provoking essay, this time by Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith.