First class

    Surreal, witty and slightly stalkerish, John Stezaker’s collages of matinee idols and postcards earn a stamp of approval.

    John Stezaker Pair I

    Good news. After decades of relentless youth worship, there is a chance the art world may finally be growing up. Certainly, the simultaneous appearance of John Stezaker at the White chapel Gallery and Susan Hiller at Tate Britain bodes well. Both are profoundly mature artists — Stezaker a 1949 vintage and Hiller a 1940. Both have beavered away for decades in the art world’s outer reaches without much troubling the fashionistas who control the centre. Both have deserved a serious examination before now. And one of them, Stezaker, is finally revealed as a fascinating and important artist whose work I ought never to have sauntered by on the countless occasions I have done so in the past. Stupid me.

    With Julia Somerville coming back and the pension age going up, it is even tempting to view the reappearance of Stezaker and Hiller as signs of something larger. This, however, is not the correct forum for speculating on ageism, experience and the big society. This is a forum in which we need to consider why old postcards of film stars have so much surrealism buried in them. Why images that we assume to be ordinary turn out to be nothing of the sort. Why the past can feel so vital, pertinent, spooky, magical, when it falls into the hands of wicked veterans.

    John Stezaker makes collages. Small things, none bigger than a sheet of A4 and most no larger than an envelope. All of his art begins life as an old postcard he has collected or a vintage film still found in a trunk. I know nothing about his actual work methods, but imagine him to be an obsessive hoarder and cataloguer who owns rows and rows of this stuff, which he keeps in carefully indexed boxes, from which he occasionally selects an image to mutilate or redirect.

    The Whitechapel show looks back at four decades of such mutilation and watches it grow smarter and more cunning. After teaching at Saint Martins (1974-89) and the Royal College of Art (1990-2005), Stezaker might have been expected to have emptied his tank by now in the service of others. Instead, he seems to have been saving his petrol for a second coming. Or is it the third? Whatever. The White chapel show is a revelation. Finally.

    The first attack you witness is on a poor, innocent-looking starlet, who has had her wide eyes enlarged into spooky hugeness with a simple slice-and-insert operation. Next to her, a tweedy Hollywood dreamboat has been blinded by the opposite process. The altered matinee idol now has no eyes at all.

    With most of Stezaker’s source material being black and white, and dating from the 1940s and 1950s, a Hitchcockian mood prevails, but the force that superglues you to his distorted film-star imagery certainly isn’t nostalgia. It is something darker than that: more subtle, more psychological, less knowable, more fascinating. Haitians stick pins into voodoo dolls for reasons that are related, way back in their genetic past, to the reason Stezaker cuts up a photograph of an actress and makes her eyes look bigger.

    The display ahead is arranged in like-minded clusters and does not trace a chronology you can follow. For once, this annoying approach actually works. The consistency of tone and effectiveness achieved here keeps all sense of rise or decline at bay. The show is brilliant, from the off, and stays that way. Nominally a retrospective, it never feels remotely backward-looking. Instead, the insistent psycho-rumblings unleashed here all seem to be set in the same twisty, shadowy, vital present, in which a familiar reality keeps being fractured, and unknown forces keep pushing their way up through the cracks. To where we are.

    John Stezaker Pair IV

    For me, the most haunting work at a haunting event is a series called Masks, which features portraits of film stars whose faces have been replaced by waterfalls and grottoes, scenes of twisted nature, as if a portrait and a landscape have mated. My guess is that these eerie images were dimly inspired by the Mona Lisa, who was, you may remember, in the famous words of Walter Pater, “older than the rocks among which she sits”. Yet where Leonardo rhymes his mysterious femme fatale with the doomy mountain landscape behind her, Stezaker’s alien starlets have been possessed by the landscape, conquered by it, infiltrated and overgrown. Poetry has mutated into surrealism. The suggestive has become the uncanny.

    By concentrating on starlets and matinee idols, Stezaker casts himself as an unseen voyeur who watches, but cannot be watched. There is always something of the skulking Unabomber about him, something of the stalker. In real life, these would be traits to regret, but in the profound, puzzling, magic world of the image, stalker instincts and Una bomber tastes are productive drives.  

    All this is achieved so simply. Where most collage artists cut their raw materials into lots of little pieces that they effortfully recombine, Stezaker will usually do very little to effect one of his telling transformations. Thus, a puzzling 1977 image of an admiring 1940s starlet gazing intently at an upside-down pianist turns out to be an upside-down photograph that Stezaker found reversed and decided to keep that way.

    What you are actually looking at is the reflection of the actress in the polished wood of the piano. The act of creation here consisted of nothing more complicated than deciding not to turn the picture the right way round. Such a simple act, yet what powerful surrealism it unleashes.

    I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Susan Hiller. I really do. So much about her is so impressive. She has made dense, thoughtful, noble art since the 1970s and, having trained as an anthropologist, is one of those precious artists who bring a fresh, genuine knowledge to Tateland. She, too, is a collector, sometimes of old postcards but most often of other people’s psychic delusions and strangenesses.

    Witness, made in 2000, is a noisy installation of hanging microphones that turn out, on careful listening, to be broadcasting the mad memories of people who claim to have experienced alien abductions. An Entertainment, from 1990, is a room-size projection piece in which a cast of assorted Punches and Judies bash the bejesus out of each other in a brutal display of beachside violence.

    Let me repeat the date of An Entertainment: 1990. That is excellently early to be making floor-to-ceiling projection pieces. Pioneering technology is one of Hiller’s most convincing claims to importance. Her Tate show buzzes about from film to video to photo piece to text with a restlessness that ought to make Stezaker’s A4 collages appear dull and repetitive. But it doesn’t. Because Hiller, for all her variety, tends always to underestimate the power of the image. There’s generally too much anthropology in her work. And rarely enough art.