Interview United Kingdom

“So much emerges from what I destroy”

John Stezaker explains why he never throws anything away and how teaching allowed him the stability to develop his work

John Stezaker, "Pair IV", 2007

For over 30 years John Stezaker was a quietly influential figure in the British art world, teaching the likes of Peter Doig, Chris Ofili and Isaac Julien at the Royal College of Art, with his own elegantly uncanny collages admired by a select band of artist-insiders. It was only when Stezaker was taken up by one of his alumni, artist turned gallerist Jake Miller of the Approach gallery, that his cuttings and splicings of classic movie stills, vintage postcards and book illustrations reached a wider audience and within a few years these unholy fusions of found images were heading the bill at the Rubell Family Collection, and were sought after by collectors and institutions from Saatchi to the Freiburg Kunstverein. Now Stezaker is about to have his first public solo exhibition in the UK with a major show at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (29 January-18 March) which has a particular focus on his work with film portraits and movie stills.

The Art Newspaper: You’ve said that when you are looking for images to use in your work you don’t find them, they find you. Can you elaborate on this?

John Stezaker:
When I come across an image I don’t know why it has a particular effect on me, I can only think of the word “fascination” to describe this. It’s something that interrupts me and stops me in my tracks. The process of taking possession of the image and trying to understand what it means may be by fragmenting it and cutting it—sometimes by the process of subtraction I can find that aspect of my fascination that was triggered.

TAN: Do you store material for future use or do you immediately know what you can do with each photograph?

JS:
The more obscure images I encounter are the ones that tend to sit around because they take time to reveal themselves. With others I absolutely know what I have to do straight away and I can’t wait to get home and complete the piece. Collage for me can be very simple, it can be done two minutes after I walk through the door or else it can hang around for over ten years and still not be resolved in the way that I want it to be. I can’t help but see these lost fragments that I find as somehow informing my sense of my own psyche. But then paradoxically the very moment that it is seeming to find me, is also the moment that I am absent from the encounter and the image takes on an autonomous identity of its own.

TAN: Do you reject any of your collages once you’ve made them?

JS:
Oh yes, at least 90%. Probably much more than that, actually.

TAN: That’s high risk—you must lose a lot of precious images…

JS:
I don’t, because then I recycle them! I look forward to destruction–because so much emerges through what I destroy. I have a shed at the bottom of my garden where I keep a pile of collages for dismantling and that’s often where I start if I am stuck in my work.

TAN: But once you’ve cut a photograph to work with another doesn’t that narrow its options?

JS:
No, not really. This is how little control I have over my work. I usually find that if I make a specific cut in relationship to another image—if I have something in mind for it and it works straight away then I tend to become suspicious of the result. I only feel as if the work gets going once my original intention has been derailed. Generally speaking when I cut an image I cut it to preserve one part but I find in nearly 50% of cases the discarded bit becomes more useful and is the one I end up using.

TAN: You trained as a painter for six years at the Slade but stopped painting when your work was destroyed in a fire.

JS:
I took the destruction of my paintings as a kind of sign. I knew that I wanted to use found images and I knew I wanted them to be on a similar kind of scale to paintings. I wanted the everyday, small-scale image to command the same space of contemplation as painting. The “capitalist realism” [I saw] in Berlin in 1969 was really a pivotal experience and when I came back from it I decided that I didn’t want to paint. It wasn’t because I didn’t like the Richters or the Polkes but it just seemed to be the wrong thing for me to be doing, there seemed to be something inauthentic about enlarging photographs or found images through paint and I felt I couldn’t do it. This led me into a kind of wilderness for several years, with various influences—situationism, extreme left-wing politics—I experimented with a whole variety of things, and then I started working with Italian photoromans [photo-story magazines], and then gradually I found myself buying film stills.

TAN: You’ve said that surrealism was an early influence…

JS:
My interest in surrealism came about through a strange route because when I was a teenager the big thing in England was pop art. I was one of those magpie teenagers who collected images and when I discovered pop art I realised that was what pop art was doing, appropriating images. I didn’t make the connection with surrealism until my first year at the Slade when I discovered [the surrealist, collaged “graphic novel”] Semaine de Bonté by Max Ernst. I was attracted to the psychological dimension of surrealism and then I realised that this was just a dimension of romanticism and a kind of engagement with the image which had started at the end of the 18th century and earlier. [But] I tired of Max Ernst very quickly as I felt a lot of the surrealists played experimentally with the idea of the unconscious as an engine to create work. By contrast, what I continue to find interesting about Joseph Cornell is that he genuinely used the process of collage as a form of self interrogation.

TAN: For over 30 years your primary activity was as a teacher, first at St Martins and then at the Royal College of Art. Was this a conscious decision?

JS:
Early on I felt that earning my living from my art wasn’t really going to be an option—and when I did get the occasional interest it was just too much of a worry. I needed a feeling of stability for my work and a structure in my life and teaching provided that. It created the practice I have now because collage was the only practice I could keep up in those spaces between lecture preparation and delivery of tutorials.

TAN: Over the past four years you have been able to give up teaching as your work has been increasingly shown—and sold. How are you finding market success?

JS:
It’s great, I love it! The fact that I can get up in the morning and the only thing I have to think about is my work is just heaven! It has been an amazing period creatively: essentially over the years I have been doing a skeleton of work around which I am now beginning to flesh out a lot of the series that were just at the beginning of their development.


"Mask XXXV", 2007
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