Culture, Review

Review: John Stezaker at The Whitworth

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By Megan James

Internationally renowned artist John Stezaker’s surreal collages have touched down at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery.

Regarded as one of the leading artists in contemporary photographic collage and appropriation, the British born artist uses vintage photographs, old film stills and natural landscape postcards, to create new personalities and scenes. Stezaker has been exhibiting his work since the 1970’s, holding exhibitions in places such as Sydney, Paris and London. His exhibition in Manchester will be running until Monday 18th June 2018 and is free to the public.

Stezaker’s work focuses on the power an image can have, which has been lost in the current day and age due to the omnipresent stream of images surrounding us everywhere we go, on the side of buses, our televisions and mobile phones. These images usually have one purpose to sell products, document events or to communicate a message. Instead, Stezaker isolates the original function of these conventional images, to allow them to become unconventional using surgical precision to join multiple photographs together, allowing these forgotten images a new lease of life.

Easy to navigate, the gallery provided the perfect setting for the exhibition, with a vast amount of space between each piece and simple undecorated walls, which allowed Stezaker’s work to speak for itself.

The exhibition involved Stezaker’s famous mask series, a selection of collages where he has used movie publicity photos and film stills of former minor movie stars with landscape postcards overlapping their faces. The movie stills and publicity shots are perfect for interpretation since they are already set in a fictional narrative. The delicate placement of the scenic postcards, line up flawlessly with the image underneath moulding together human figures with the natural landscape, using arches of bridges to represent the actors eye sockets, or a cluster of rocks to represent their nose. Challenging his viewers to find a face in a faceless image.

Also shown at the exhibition is Stezaker’s Marriage series, which through slicing, rotating and then recombining vintage photographs of movie stars he had hoarded over the years, he developed something gothic, witty and confusing at first glance. Similar to that of Hannah Höch’s work – one of the originators of photomontage- who juxtaposed, cut and overlapped unrelated fragments of photographs to reflect the doubt and confusion of the post-war era. Stezaker’s distorted images are carefully placed together by aligning their eyebrow arches, or jaws effortlessly from one image to the next. This creates a new identity for the characters, turning them into a hybrid ‘icons’. Enabling the characters in the portraits to retain their aura of glamour, whilst also adding a modern, exotic touch, allowing these otherwise forgotten images to have infinite meaning.

Though at first glance his work seems random and erratic, it is actually very precise. With each collage starting with one original image, followed by an image used to distort the first, whilst hinting to what is underneath. It’s great to see an artist re-invent the purpose of original imagery, in order to create something with much more depth, making this exhibition a must see.

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