High on the thirty-eighth floor of the Hancock Building, John Stezaker and I stand amidst the clean white walls of Richard Gray Gallery. With staff members buzzing about and janitors mopping and polishing the floor around us, it’s an unfortunate environment for recording an interview. Stezaker’s show “The Truth of Masks” opens this evening and he’s flown in from England to be present during the buzz.
Arranged neatly along the walls in unobtrusive black frames, Stezaker’s small-scale collages offer us a quiet yet complex landscape of escape. Made from film stills and vintage postcards, the works feature conjoined and overlaid fragments of images past. Beckoning me toward a horizontal piece teeming with circular cutouts of horse heads combined with standing men, Stezaker tells me the spherical shapes are a result of his time spent hospitalized. “I had these strange dreams….When I don’t work, I tend to dream about working.” With a sweeping outwards gesture, he adds, “These are all my dreams.”
At an age when most are retiring, Stezaker was thrust rapidly out of his quiet career as a professor and into the art world’s loud limelight when he won the 2012 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, and again in 2014 with his inclusion in the Sydney Biennale. As the exhibition opportunities poured forth, his career skyrocketed and his health faltered. “Having been starved for exhibitions, then to have a sudden abundance of them—I just couldn’t say no. People told me to stop, but I couldn’t. I love the adrenaline. If I’m addicted to anything, it’s probably adrenaline.” Pausing, he breathes in slightly and brushes his tangled, silver hair off his forehead. “And it keeps driving me back into illness.”
I change the subject to ask him about his studio. He tells me he has a beautiful space, but prefers to work from home. “Actually, I find that when I get really, really tired and cease to be able to make critical judgments is when the best work happens.” Working late into the night, Stezaker scatters images atop tables and across the floor. “When I come down in the morning, they’re all still there, and one or two might be okay. It’s a very depressing day when there’s nothing…and that does happen quite often.”
Using only unwanted or damaged images, Stezaker creates new scenery out of old imagery from Hollywood’s golden era. Always choosing unrecognizable actors so he can slice through them in good conscience, he combines locations and faces to create new, otherworldly realities. With nods to surrealism, the pieces emit a quiet aura of improbability—old is made new again in twisted, ethereal reincarnations.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m in purgatory and I’m trapped in a hall of mirrors of imagery and I’m trying to find my way out,” he says, lowering his voice to almost a whisper. “But other times, I find that there is a way of guiding my consciousness through these worlds of imagery. And I find that very exciting and adventurous.” (Maria Girgenti)
John Stezaker shows at Richard Gray Gallery, 875 North Michigan, through December 12.
Elliot Josephine Leila Reichert is a curator, critic and editor. She is the inaugural Curator of Contemporary Art at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University. She was formerly Curatorial Fellow at the Chicago Artists Coalition, Art Editor of Newcity and Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University.