Saturday, 5 October 2013

Looking at Stezaker & Learning to 'Swim'

Untitled, 1977 Found Image - John Stezaker

Since Assignment Five went off to my tutor, I've been taking some time to look properly at the work of John Stezaker.  His collages have partially informed my own work for Assignment Five;  plus I saw, and really enjoyed, a significant exhibition of his work in Arles a couple of months ago (blogged here); and on returning from Arles, I got the book that came with his Whitechapel Gallery Retrospective in 2011 - John Stezaker.  The image above isn't a collage, of course; it's an inverted image - a film still.  He tells the story of how his wife acquired it for him in the early 1970s, when he was beginning to collect such images.  It was upside down when she handed it to him and immediately made an impact on him.  He says that it sat, upside down, on the piano music stand, for five years, before he could be sure that inverting it in this way might be regarded as art.  Oh, the angst of the creative process!  I can see why the image haunted him - it has an unsettling effect on me, too.  It is an excellent illustration (albeit not a typical one) of the way that Stezaker intervenes with images and explores (as he puts it) the 'after-life of the image'. 

Thirty years or more ago, he was asking these sorts of questions of himself (all quoted from the book): 

How can you be an artist in a culture of images?

Images that are already in the world are so much more fascinating than anything I could create. Could art be just finding and taking out of circulation? 

Thirty years on, the answer seems to be a resounding 'yes' as he has built a highly successful practice on the 'found' image.  But also interesting to reflect back to the research for my Assignment Four essay and the concerns of some younger contemporary art photographers - such as Lucas Blalock saying that everything may have been photographed - and artists such as Mishka Henner (blogged here) working with images from the internet.  I also think of a quote from Laura Letinsky that I used in my essay, to the effect that her more recent work (in which she also uses existing images) involves letting go of photography's promise.  It seems that Stezaker has, for the last thirty years, been letting go of the photographic image's promise.  As Michael Bracewell puts it in an essay in the book linked above, he does so "... through a succession of interruptions and interventions that disconnect the image from its referential bearings".  In an interview with Stezaker, in the same book, Daniel F, Herrmann suggests to him that "meaning seems to germinate in between the cracks" of his images; and Stezaker replies that "It is those spaces that excite me".  There are several references to him creating a space in which the after-life of these 'rescued' images can be contemplated.  That, in turn, reminds me of another Letinsky-related quote that I used.  Duncan Wooldridge said something to the effect that she is exploring a pictorial space outside of regular temporality.  Stezaker, of course, has worked extensively with film stills, which he describes as having "temporal ambiguity" (because they are pretending to be something there are not - not in fact frames from the actual movies, but posed, staged imitations of a moment in the narrative, making them, perhaps, more like paintings than anything else ...).

So, why am I stringing together these disparate quotes and references?  It is because I feel myself to have been caught up for most of this year in this swirl of time and space questions, together with my earlier 'angst' about what I was doing with my own photographic image-making.  Stezaker's 30 year old concerns about an artist's potential to create meaningful images in an already substantial flow of existing images feels somehow reassuring.  My research for Assignment Four was also reassuring, to an extent; and, though I await feedback on my Assignment Five images, that work has taken me a little way into similar areas - and it has been enjoyable & rewarding.  I haven't  pinned down exactly what is going on in this fast-flowing deluge of 21st century imagery - in fact, just the opposite, I've begun to accept that there is no pinning-down potential whatsoever.  Perhaps I am, at least, learning to swim and stay afloat - from which position one can observe what is going on around.

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