John Stezaker

Untitled

1978–9

In Tate Liverpool
Artist
John Stezaker born 1949
Medium
Silkscreen and acrylic paint on 2 canvases
Dimensions
Support: 1220 x 1865 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2012
Reference
T13593

Summary

Untitled 1978–9 is a two-panel black and white silkscreen painting. The right hand panel is square and positioned centrally within it is an image of a male head in left profile. The left hand panel – an oblong half the width of the right panel but the same height – is a black monochrome. The head is shown in deep shadow with a highlight marking the profile as if lit from the front right, from the direction of the subject’s gaze. The isolation of the head amid an otherwise blank field intensifies the scopophilic, yet enigmatic, gaze that forms the painting’s subject. The motif is taken from an Italian photo-roman, a form of popular magazine which used photographs and a comic-strip format to present romantic stories. Much of the source of imagery for Stezaker’s first silkscreens of the late 1970s, predominantly gazing male figures and couples kissing, were drawn from these publications.

In his earlier use of photographic – often advertising – imagery, Stezaker created narratives driven both by the sequence of images and captions. In 1975–6 when he first turned to the use of film stills or the Italian photo-roman for source imagery, he dispensed with captions and in doing so denied a single given narrative. These isolated images suggested other narrative flows, unlocking a complicity of gaze in the viewer. The critic Michael Newman wrote about these works in 1982:

Narrative in these forms offers an ever-present possibility of pleasure which compels the viewer’s attention, despite the knowledge that the consummation will always be postponed. These paintings by Stezaker are stoppages in the image-flow, freezing narrative at the moment of greatest promise. The frozen image is proffered to another form of contemplation. A disembodied, enigmatically smiling male head confronts a split of light in the void.
(Newman 1982, pp.3–4.)

The single found images Stezaker isolated in his paintings were stereotypical and so, to a degree, abstractions that demanded the viewer invest in such a way that re-contextualises the fragment through the action of individual desire. The banality of the source image is self-consciously theatricalised by the monochromatic field that holds it as a ‘trap for the gaze’ (‘John Stezaker interviewed by John Roberts’, Aspects, no.22, Spring 1983, unpaginated). Stezaker saw paintings such as Untitled as presenting ‘a threshold of some kind, an image, and at the same time what interests me is the edge that separates that image from the real world’ (ibid.). By being separated from its source narrative, by becoming ‘self enclosed and autonomous’, the image can start to exert a new fascination both for artist and viewer (Michael Bracewell, ‘John Stezaker, Demand the Impossible’, Frieze, no.89, March 2005, p.89).

It is this concern with issues of photographic representation and the analytical or critical transformations that are brought to bear through an image’s re-presentation that allies British-born Stezaker’s paintings and collages with the New York ‘Pictures’ artists – predominantly Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman – who exhibited at the Metro Pictures Gallery in New York in the 1970s. Stezaker had been in touch with these artists since 1978 when Levine had contacted him after seeing his five-part photo work Pursuit 1975 in a 1976 issue of the magazine Studio International. Stezaker subsequently spent about three months of every year in New York between 1979 and 1985. Although this spawned a mutually beneficial dialogue the main difference between Stezaker and the American artists, critic John Roberts has argued, was in the allegorical use of the image. Unlike artists such as Robert Longo, Stezaker’s interest in the action of voyeurism and the gaze:

does not use ambiguity to open up the fiction of the sign, but as a means to transfigure it into something that has a life of its own … If Stezaker’s work embodies any critique of the images he uses, it rests on their general deathliness, their transitoriness. What interests Stezaker is the passage between life (our desire for) and death (its exhaustion through fashion) of the consumer image.
(Roberts 1983, pp.4–5.)

Further reading
Michael Newman, Simulacra, New Works by Jonathan Miles, John Stezaker, Jan Wandja, John Wilkins, exhibition catalogue, Riverside Studios, London 1982.
John Roberts, ‘Ruins in the Realm of Thoughts’, RealLife Magazine, no.10, Summer 1983, pp.2–6.
John Stezaker, Silkscreens, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, Friedrich Petzal Gallery, New York and The Approach, London 2010.

Andrew Wilson
January 2012

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Display caption

The source for the image presented by this two-part silkscreen painting is an Italian magazine that used photographs and a comic-strip format to present romantic stories. The head has been characteristically isolated by Stezaker amid an otherwise blank field of colour, in the same way that it has been removed from an unspecified narrative. For Stezaker, it is the viewer’s reading of the man’s gaze that provides the work with subject. The banality of the source-image is self-consciously theatricalised by the black monochromatic field that holds it, as Stezaker has explained, as a ‘trap for the gaze.’

Gallery label, October 2013

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