John Stezaker and The Power of Masks

Nov 2, 2011 by     3 Comments    Posted under: lit, visual

The true mask is something which never changes, but remains perfectly and unmistakably itself, a constant in the continual flux of metamorphosis.  Part of the strength of its effect is due to the fact that it reveals nothing of what is behind it.
-Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power


My favorite scene in the 2003 film “Freddy vs Jason” takes place in an ambulance.  A central premise of the script is that the group of hapless teen victims caught in the middle of this horror prize fight must choose sides to hedge their risk-of-murder, and they choose Jason (perhaps they view Freddy’s pleasure of killing as more evil than Jason’s instinctual and wordless slaughter).  And for this reason they find themselves in an ambulance with Jason, arguing over who has to perform mouth-to-mouth so they can keep him alive to destroy Freddy.  The thin braniac boy tells the sassy hot girl that she has to do it, and when she asks why not him, he responds “I would, but I’ve had asthma since I was a kid”.  So she removes the mask, and Jason’s disfigured face spits up some water right before she moves in to do the deed.  Ultimately the scene is great because it underscores what is so enjoyable about the movie, which how over the top and sensational it is even for pop-horror movie standards–novelty trumps scare.  More importantly it reminds the viewer that Jason’s mask is far more terrifying than anything that can be imagined to be underneath it.
Maybe this is what Elias Canetti had in mind when he said “the mask is clear and certain, but is loaded with the terror uncertainty.  Its terror derives from the fact that it itself is known, while what it covers is never known.  The mask is only known from the outside or, as it were, from the front.”  I’ll take the minimalist hockey mask any day over other horror figures, who are downright cartoony in comparison, and I find the various imaginings of Jason sans mask to be gross at best, but certainly not terrifying.  Jason is scariest when he at his most opaque, unreadable.
I have a similar feeling about the use of masks in Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”, especially when a character is heard talking through a mask but there is no visible evidence of it. “No one knows what may not burst forth from behind the mask”, says Canetti. “The tension created by the contrast between its appearance and the secret it hides can become extreme.  This is the real reason for the terror the mask inspires.  ‘I am exactly what you see’ it proclaims, ‘and everything you fear is behind me.’”
Masks were used ceremoniously in many Native American traditions either by Shamans or by dancers who were acting as conduits to supernatural realms, or as a place holder of sorts for Death.  Here again the opacity of the mask is just as important what the mask ostensibly represents.  The Haida tribe made “transformation masks”, worn by dancers manifesting the metamorphosis between animal and human forms, with Death looming in the background.

British collage artist John Stezaker started making his “masks” in the early eighties, in part because of inspiration from reading Canetti’s thoughts on the matter.  Stezaker is a master of concise combinations of appropriated images, and is well known for his “marriages” which consist of classic Hollywood head shots sliced diagonally and joined to form male-female hybrids that are simultaneously creepy and comical:

In almost all of his work he is finding the ways in which his images collude at their edges yet still remain juxtaposed.

His mask series follows a simple logic: post cards showing a particular place laid over a face in a head shot.  The seam between the images is in plain view, there’s no attempt to hide the act of collage.  ”The mask is perfect because it stands alone, leaving everything behind it in shadow”, says Canetti.  ”The more distinct it is, the darker everything else.”  Few collage artists are as succinct as Stezaker, and few are capable of  leveraging such potent images in so few strokes.  These are masks in the most literal and plain sense–something that covers a face–but his postcard/head shot combinations create intensely uncanny portraits.

Some masks are caves, which exist as a cover of the face and as a collapse of it.  Part of the uncanny quality comes from this simple insertion of a kind of absence onto the face, with is supposed to be a surface of readable presence.  Stezaker’s cave masks also take on a grotesque quality, but more in the sense of a victim of deformation than of a menacing figure.

Some are tunnels or other passageways, with structures that line up with particular facial features, or with the edge of the head.  A hole opens up where a face should be, like a portal that sucks you into a different dimension.   Horizon lines further amplify the idea that these masks are drawing us in toward another place.  The border between our world and the afterworld has become porous.

Stezaker also brings images of streams to his mask series, invoking the passage of time slowly eroding forms down.  The flow seems to be reversed here, letting the water trickle through to the surface rather than creating an opening that sucks you in.

His couples masks are some of the eeriest, in part because the postcard-mask seems to bind them together, but there is almost always a chasm or gap between them.  They’re locked into a distance.  These masks also seem to involve craggy landscapes, invoking a sense of geologic time.

In the background of all this is the most of the faces being masked in these collages are most likely literally dead at this point.  Stezaker is often asked about how he chooses his images and he constantly reiterates that his images choose him.  However his images accumulate, his sources seem to hover somewhere around the mid-century, and the separation in time between his “subjects” and his collaging seems to be a crucial part of the equation.

My current work explores collage technique in the broad sense: appropriation as a discursive act, an interweaving of disparate elements into new hybrid possibilities. This exploration can take the form of collaged book fragments embedded in layers of resin, video collages, sound experiments and installations of found materials.

Earn cred, share a bit.

3 Comments + Add Comment

  • [...] I wrote a short piece about Masks for Clothesline Productions “Quoth the Craven” issue.  Check it out. [...]

  • The postcard series intrigues me the most. I want to experiment with this myself. So if the photos are found photos and the postcards are as well, the interpretation can be pretty interesting. What I like about that is that the interpretation is just as individual as the observer whether the observer is the artist or not. Further, I wonder about using one’s own photograph–another exploration. What would you pair with your own photo? And how would that vary with the age you are in the photo? You could do an entire journal and your own exploration of your own psyche with it. How fascinating. Do you have an idea of what postcard you would use, Jordan? Or would you use a random one and look for an interpretation of that?

  • hey Mary! Good to hear from you, thanks for the comments.
    I really appreciate the succinctness of Stezaker’s work, but my own impulses with collages are usually the opposite–dense, layered accumulations–so I don’t see myself exploring the postcards. What’s interesting about Stezaker’s own take on this is he repeatedly emphasizing how the images choose him. A big part of his art process is simply accumulating and sorting through images that he collects. He even has a separate “collection” of images that he simply archives and doesn’t use for a collage. He tends to do this activity during the day, and makes the collages at night. So, the endpoint of the process is a particular combination that has resulted from this sorting, and I think that’s why he says the images choose him. The sorting process actually allows for him to respond to what images jump out at him.
    I definitely relate to that, and it’s a big part of why I like working in collage. There are all kinds of resonances and synchronicities that can occur between the appropriated material.
    I’ve never explored using my own photos, but I think you’re right that there are some interesting possibilities there, using the collage as an act of self-reflection.

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