John Stezaker: The Voyeur: Photoroman Collages, 1976-1979 at Petzel

John Stezaker, The Voyeur I (Photoroman), 1976. Courtesy Petzel

“There is something very odd, even unnerving, about cutting through a photograph,” the British artist John Stezaker told the Guardian a few years ago, concluding, “It sometimes feels like I am cutting through flesh.”

Stezaker (born in 1949) has been a quiet influence on some of the key developments in the art of the last 40 years. Long fascinated with found photographs and printed material – vintage film stills, old postcards, Victorian pastorals – he has used these as source material for his richly allusive collages and appropriations. For this elegant show of 27 works, on view at Petzel through January 6, he used pictures cut from Spanish photoromans, which he began collecting in the mid-seventies. Stezaker can be included among artists as diverse as Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Wall, for whom mass-produced imagery is a central point of departure for critical inquiries into the nature of representation in the “age of mechanical reproduction.”

John Stezaker, Enter … (Exit) … The Third Person, VI, 1977. Courtesy Petzel

His is a decidedly handmade aesthetic: using nothing more than a razor blade and photos culled from the pages of photoromans, he creates photocollages that harken back to Surrealist interventions in the medium. Like Surrealists, Stezaker explores sexuality, though he often does so through the understated gesture of “the kiss,” a key visual trope in both the photoroman narrative and in vintage film. Also like Surrealist photography, Stezacker’s collages explore human attraction not as an expression of human nature, but as Rosalind Krauss famously described the phenomenon (in L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism), something “woven of fantasy and representation, [that] is fabricated.”

Stezaker has an uncanny knack for disrupting our expectations of how these highly conventional images function. The difference between “montage” and “collage” is crucial here: “I’ve always made a distinction between collage and photomontage,” he told the Guardian. “Montage is about producing something seamless and legible, whereas collage is about interrupting the seam and making something illegible.” In removing images from their original context and “repurposing” them, his work recalls almost all of the historical avant-garde movements of the 20th century: Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Pop, Situationism, Conceptualism, and postmodern appropriation. In this, his oeuvre deserves a place among the very best artists whose practice has been formed by an abiding fascination with the ways in which mass-produced images permeate even the deepest recesses of our unconscious lives.