The Anti-Warholian Image: John Stezaker’s Lost Images

Mark Prince

Reviews / 04.01.2011
Print

John Stezaker, Lost (Double), 2010, digital inkjet print on paper, 195 x 300cm, two parts. Courtesy The Approach, London

John Stezaker, Lost II, 2010, digital inkjet print on paper, 195 x 150cm. Courtesy The Approach, London

John Stezaker, Line I (Lost), 2010, digital inkjet print on paper, 195 x 320cm, two parts. Courtesy The Approach, London

John Stezaker, Damage VI, 2010, found image, 25 x 20cm. Courtesy The Approach, London

John Stezaker, Lost I, 2010, digital inkjet print on paper, 195 x 150cm. Courtesy The Approach, London

John Stezaker, Lost IV, 2010, digital inkjet print on paper, 195 x 150cm. Courtesy The Approach, London

John Stezaker, Line II, 2007-08, found images, 23 x 20cm each. Courtesy The Approach, London

John Stezaker, Stigmata IV, 2010, found image (one of four parts), 23 x 20cm. Courtesy The Approach, London

John Stezaker, Lost VI, 2010, digital inkjet print on paper, 195 x 150cm. Courtesy The Approach, London

John Stezaker, Lost VII, 2010, digital inkjet print on paper, 195 x 150cm. Courtesy The Approach, London

The unknown B-movie actors and actresses portrayed in John Stezaker's Lost Images (2010) series take their place against the backdrop of a tradition of heroic representation, within which the early silkscreens of Andy Warhol loom large. Stezaker's subjects are heroes manqués to Warhol's fully-fledged stars. Looking back half a century to when they were first exhibited, Warhol's early silkscreens predicted the burgeoning of celebrity culture between the 1960s and now; they adumbrated its distorted version of traditional social hierarchies, a ladder of prestige parallelling that of traditional portraiture. In this new order, fame, or cultural immanence, confers a status that had previously stemmed from class and economic wealth. Where there was the serf, the merchant, the gentry, the knight, and, at the pinnacle, the king and queen, there is now the fan, the consumer/collector, the various taste-makers (curators/directors/coaches) with their varying degrees of authority, and ultimately, the star (actors/artists/celebrities/athletes). Warhol's early silkscreens of Liz, Elvis and Marilyn cast the viewer as the star-gazing fan, as, for example, Velázquez's Las Meninas (1656) portrays the dwarfs, aids, princesses and dogs of the court - and, of course, the artist himself - as a faithful entourage engaged in perceiving King Phillip IV of Spain and his Queen. The circuitous pictorial strategies on which these two works depend ­- the unpredictable variation of Warhol's repeating silkscreen image, or Velázquez's self-reflexive mirrorings - question the hierarchies that they support and propagate, but those values are a pretext from which any subversions will proceed. Las Meninas directly portrays only the young princesses and marginal figures of the court, but the logic of the pictorial structure is always pointing towards the monarchy. We are watching them watch the king and queen.

A common denominator between both Warhol and Velázquez is a representation of heroic status, whether it is that of the royal couple or star - and this realisation of an ideal comprehends the possibility of its fall from grace. The gravitational dynamic of heroic status in Western literature is correspondingly downward, whether in terms of the tragic heroes of Aristotelian drama, whose nobility of character contained a tragic flaw that inevitably causes their downfall, or, panning outwards, towards the downward momentum of heroic status in modern Western literature in general. Gods and kings gave way to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel of the aristocracy and the moneyed gentry, and in the twentieth century, the 'kitchen-sink' fictions of the urban middle and working classes. 'Fallen from grace', and 'fallen' in itself, are, of course, phrases with religious connotations, and the plummet from a prelapsarian pinnacle suggests the bias of Christian religious art. Warhol's early silkscreens engage with this narrative of 'fallen' heroic status, along with its religious associations. Stezaker is not representing the gulf between the nobility of achieved status and the forces conspiring to unsettle it; his goal is closer to that of vaudevillian absurdity, the bathetic out-of-placeness of mediocrity that has strayed into a frame hitherto allotted only to higher orders on the celebrity ladder.The silver and gold paint grounding many of his canvases reference the traditional technique of gold leaf in medieval religious art. He is a prime instigator of the muddying of the rarefied waters of 1950s high modernism with low-art material, but, paradoxically, his embrace of pop-cultural subject matter coincided with a reinstatement of traditional iconic imagery: the star as a surrogate god or godly figure. If Warhol activated a hierarchical high-art/low-art scale, he simultaneously rubbished it by offering the transience of fame as worthy of secular adulation: 'low-art' was 'high-art' in the terms of his paintings. The axis had been levelled out as soon as it was proposed. Investing his nascent hierarchy of celebrity status with signs of death, Warhol's gods were always threatened by the intimation of their fall. The repeatability of the silkscreen print denies the autonomy of the human image, and by inference, human individuality itself, while within the wider context of Warhol's oeuvre of the period, his silkscreens of car crash victims, falling suicides and unoccupied electric chairs cast a mortal shadow across the star portraits.

Stezaker's Lost Images series comments on the tradition of heroic status, and specifically Warhol's take on it. The drama and pathos of Warhol's early silkscreens is contingent upon a suspension of disbelief in their heroic idealism, along with a perception of their subjects' vulnerability, despite their fame. Stezaker's protagonists, however, are conceived as already having forsaken any claim to heroic status, although this 'fallenness' implies the same scale of values against which Warhol's portraits are measured. The Lost Images preserve the celebrity-heroic axis in order to attest to a relative modesty. Stezaker is not representing the gulf between the nobility of achieved status and the forces conspiring to unsettle it; his goal - in the show business terms suggested by the images themselves - is closer to that of vaudevillian absurdity, the bathetic out-of-placeness of mediocrity that has strayed into a frame hitherto allotted only to higher orders on the celebrity ladder. Using the grand scale of the posters, and our initial tendency to assume that they must portray famous actors, Stezaker presents his subjects as masqueraders in a role they cannot possibly fulfil. It is a drama of failed presumption that depends on our mistaken desire that they be more deserving of our adulation than they prove to be. The joke is finally on us, as viewers, rather then on them for having found themselves in a position beyond their station.

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Lost Images consists of 1940s and 50s promotional portraits, mostly around A4-size shown alongside a narrower cycle of poster enlargements - all around two metres high - of a selection of images from the same collection of found photographs. The act of enlargement, dramatised by the conjunction of the two formats, is a sign of the projects' methodological apotheosis of the second-rate. Nevertheless, only two images from the series are presented in both formats. Stezaker's titles are either numbered variations on certain simple words that might be associated with photography and painting - Lost II (2007/2010), Line I Part A (2007/2008) - while other works made during the same period directly connote 'fallenness' - Damage IV (2007), Stigmata I (2007). The titles are not informative in a documentary sense, supplying us with information to salve our curiosity as to who is represented, in what filmic role, and in which year. None of this is apparent from the images, as it is with Warhol's subjects. This discrepancy underlines the distinction between Warhol's representation of contemporary stars - in which his own contribution to their fame cannot be separated from his share in the risk that they will not 'make it', that he will have backed the wrong horse - and Stezaker's historical view of figures whose lesser status has already been long determined. That Liz and Elvis have withstood the test of time is a feat now difficult to distinguish from the image Warhol made of them having done so.

The contrast between Stezaker's and Warhol's subjects hinges perceptually on recognition. It is the punctum of the Warholian star image - the badge of celebrity status from the pages of Hello! to the blockbuster billboard poster. Our reflexive desire to recognise Stezaker's subjects as stars as soon as we perceive them as actors - or at least as connected to show business culture - suggests how firmly the template of the star is rooted in contemporary culture. We mistake the bare-chested hunk of the poster Lost VII (2008/2010) as Johnny Weismuller, who played Tarzan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). Stezaker's Line II Part B (2007) belongs to one of the telephone 'couples': separate and unrelated film stills of a man and a woman talking on the telephone, which Stezaker presents as a pair, as if they were on either end of the same line. The featured actor's beady, distrustful eyes and receding hairline resemble those of a young John Malkovich. But it is neither Malkovich nor Weissmuller, but a couple of also-rans bearing an approximate resemblance to the stars. Failed recognition, here, is a perceptual equivalent of the loss of status. In Warhol's representation of celebrity, an intimation of mortality threatens to collapse the façade of the star hero and to return him or her to a particular human being. Stezaker echoes the same trope by other means, collapsing the false appearance of celebrity into anonymity, and celebrity myth into social realism. We are taken from the Warholian image - which presents us with information we find, through the process of our recognition, that we have already absorbed by cultural osmosis - into unknown territory. Warhol's absolutism gives onto the grey areas of Stezaker's anti-categorical imagery, embodying the degrees of contemporary celebrity in the digital age, from the self-promotion of Facebook devotees to the transient notoriety of reality television. Stezaker resurrects images from an earlier era, in which the celebrity hierarchy was more polar, in order to relinquish those binary values and comment on a contemporary condition in which a loss of anonymity need not imply stardom.

What I have termed the unknown territory of the Lost Images is Stezaker's straddling of certain familiar categories of photographic image: that of documentary portraits of anonymous men or women of a certain era; of fictions whose plot we are unfamiliar with but would be interested in knowing; and of retro-images that possess stylistic attributes that fulfil our expectations of a photograph from 'the 1940s'. The documentary image would provide the worthy reassurances of a social realist agenda; the unknown fiction the allure of a mysterious cultural artefact to which we were being offered privileged access; the retro-image a sense that the past is knowable. But the theatrical artifice of Stezaker's images denies them documentary status; they are mostly too absurd and unglamorous to seduce us into wanting to know more about the fictions they are representing; and their subjects are too particular and flawed - neither generic nor famous enough - to stand as retro-cultural representatives of their period. Conforming to any of these categories would grant the image access to a field beyond the limits of its frame. Falling between all of them but belonging to none, Stezaker's actors are condemned to hermeticism, a state which the telephone conceit - a sign for a conduit to the world beyond the frame of the image - might have been designed to ironise. They are not even allowed the sentimental glow of pathos: emotion is monopolised by the mawkish artifice of the forgotten roles the actors have adopted. If Warhol commemorated the alchemical heat which transformed humble Norma Jeane Baker into the global currency of Marilyn, Stezaker records an antithetical process, the reversion of the unrealised show business mask back to a condition of vulnerable personal idiosyncrasy - that is, not the inflation or deflation of heroic status, but the unsuccessful attempt to attain it.

Stezaker's separation of the series into two forms - the poster and the found image - represents and symbolises the process of reproduction, as well as that of enlargement. The posters designate the original prints, with their damp stains and missing corners, as uniques; the originals, in turn, are models for the repeatable blow-ups. Warhol's early silkscreens exemplify how the cocktail of emotional affects produced by photographic images is predicated on the possibility of iterability, and conversely, how the failure to achieve this sameness is a sign of the imposition of human fallibility. The movie stars are pitched as tragic heroes, doomed to fade as the silkscreen paint thins from the squeegee blade in the course of a run of prints; their image, however, can live on as long as their fame endures. Painting - as figured in the medium of silkscreen - is cast as the stubborn human agent polluting the transparency of photography's window and the purity of its transposition into our collective memory.

Warhol's Double Liz (1963) was included in the exhibition 'Andy Warhol: The Early Sixties - Paintings and Drawings 1961-64' at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, while Stezaker's Lost Images series was on show at the Kunstverein Freiburg. The canvas of Double Liz is grounded with silver paint so that the over-printed half-tone becomes partly reflective. Silver signifies the film medium of celluloid, as well as the image's inaccessibility, like an aloof film star's mirrored sunglasses. Two prints of the same picture of Elizabeth Taylor, in black paint, are slightly off-kilter. Abutting side by side, they float in the top half of the square canvas like an emotive Mark Rothko colour cloud. Weakening in paint strength from the left to right-hand image, the glitches and slippages of the silkscreen introduce a temporal narrative dimension, as though Taylor were fading between the sequential frames of a film. The unpredictability of paint's application, despite the mechanical silkscreen process, threatens to corrupt Taylor's levity. The dot screen of black paint spans the silver ground like an occluding web. Blocking out this shimmer with its darkness, the human image is a shadow cast across the silver ground of the painting. This shadow is a material manifestation of the threat of mortality that Warhol brings to the immortality of the image.

Whereas Warhol's painting intimates a gulf between the mortal Elizabeth Taylor and the persisting availability of the image that was made of her, Stezaker's portrait is Sebaldian, both evidence that something existed and a sign of its inaccessibility. By contrast, the actor pictured in Stezaker's Double (Lost) (2010), has no levity to lose. His features are doubled up in two identical posters hung side by side. Extreme enlargement reveals the original photographer's manual retouching ­- like cross-hatching or decorative calligraphy - as the form of painting that it always was. But this alteration is cosmetic, concealing whatever human flaws were deemed best covered up. Rather than blocking out the image's luminosity, its superhuman aura, paint masks its inadequacies. Stezaker's doubling lends no temporal dynamic to the diptych; it is static, intensifying the actor's needy stare, his surrender of personality and autonomy to the reproductive medium. Whereas Warhol's painting intimates a gulf between the mortal Elizabeth Taylor and the persisting availability of the image that was made of her, Stezaker's portrait is Sebaldian, both evidence that something existed and a sign of its inaccessibility. Its 'evidential power' ­- in Barthes's words - is futile as it can only lead to a recognition that what it proves cannot be known or even named.

If Stezaker manifests a 'fall' from the absolutist myth of the star (as supremely realised by Warhol) into a slippery no-man's-land of realism, he also takes us from the relativistic iteration of Warhol's imagery - in which each print refers to its neighbours in a self-mirroring, self-affirming spectrum - to the positing of a humanistic value beyond the artifice of the image and to which it testifies. In philosophical terms, this is a transition from Warhol's encapsulation of contemporary ironic relativism - with its Wittgensteinian comprehension of value confined to the limits of language - towards the intimation of a metaphysical value beyond the web of language. This implication of a Kantian 'truth', which the medium of the photograph both reveals and conceals, is consistent with the religious suggestiveness of some of Stezaker's titles. It is ironic that an unknown human referent is the final value offered by the images, given that the function of the original promotional photographs was to consecrate an aspiring personality into a product that could become recognisable to the image-consuming public. In Stezaker's hands, the mask of theatrical artifice, which originally dressed up the subjects for their sale as images, functions as a screen that protects the autonomy of the portrayed individual from our later scrutiny, and protects us from the historical abyss of his or her image.