John Stezaker and The Power of Masks
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. www.jordanmartins.com
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