John Stezaker, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Take some old film portraits, cut, and paste together. Hey presto, you've got a cute Hollywood in-joke – and one of the saddest and cleverest shows in town

And so, for no very good reason, to Meret Oppenheim's fur-covered teacup, Object.

How does it work? In the functional sense, presumably it doesn't. Oppenheim has taken two markedly proper commodities – teacups and fur – and run them together to make a third, improper one: the phrase "drinking from the furry cup" might have been coined for Object. Like all surrealist artworks, the power of this one lies in its coincidence of inappropriate things, and that in turn relies on time. See a Chinese gazelle's hide and then, a moment later, a teacup and you will not turn a hair. But see a gazelle-hide teacup – a gazellehideteacup – and you might find yourself retching.

John Stezaker makes collages out of found images, mostly old film stills and studio publicity shots, sometimes with the addition of vintage postcards. Like Oppenheim's teacup, his work depends on coincidence and its Freudian friend, accident. As with Oppenheim, too, you might reach for the word "Surrealist" to describe Stezaker and his art, although Object was made in 1936 and the earliest work in Stezaker's one-man show at the Whitechapel dates from 1976, long after Surrealism's heyday. There is probably an -ism to describe what he does: neo-Surrealism, perhaps, or post-neo-Surrealism. As Molesworth might say, I neither kno nor care. There are other, more important words to apply to Stezaker's work, among them "elegant", "cunning" and "uproarious".

Take this one, from a series called Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) and made in 2006. Stezaker has taken two black-and-white studio photographs from the 1950s, one of a man, one a woman, cut them diagonally down the middle of their subjects' faces and stuck them back together. Simples! Well, yes and no. In terms of cutting – a big part of the collagist's work – Stezaker is oriental in his simplicity. There is the single slice, made, at a guess, with a craft knife, the collaging of two parts only. Where the work comes in is in the looking: in Stezaker finding the images and somehow keeping them all in his head, remembering how big they are and how saturated, what angle they were taken at, how they will slot in technically. And that is before the whole question of what will emerge, in emotional terms, from putting them together, how appropriately inappropriate they will turn out to be.

In the case of this particular Marriage, what hits you is its worrying beauty. The man and the woman are individually lovely, but the troubling thing is that their beauty is the same. Seen as one, she is revealed as strong and handsome, he as lush-lipped and feminine. This is less a marriage than a genetic splicing, a teacup of fur. Beyond that again is a story, unspoken but none the less told, to do with inconstancy, the tendency of all things to slide.

One suite of Stezaker's collages is called Betrayal, apparently based on a complaint common among male-to-female transsexuals that their hands give them away. The images in this suite are accordingly full of hands. But Betrayal would make a good working title for all of Stezaker's collages, their juxtapositions betraying all kinds of unsaid things.

What really brings you up short is the ease with which Stezaker seems to do what he does. My wordy paragraph above described one slice of his Stanley knife. That, though, is positively baroque compared with his pasting of postcards to publicity stills.

Here is one called Pair IV (2007), in which Stezaker has stuck a postcard of the Aar Gorge over the shot of a pair of suavely dressed movie stars, presumably gazing into each other's eyes. The gorge's two cliff-faces become the faces of the actors with such ridiculous accuracy that, as often with Stezaker's work, you find yourself guffawing out loud. It is like the unpicking of a metaphor of love, some cheesy, Hollywood line to do with elemental forces and the earth moving, chasms being bridged. You can almost hear the violins.

But there's something there as well as humour, as well as Stezaker's uncanny eye for visual coincidence. The oddest thing about Pair IV is that you feel it is strangely revealing of something, although it is impossible to say quite what. And so with Love X, in which a pretty starlet's face has had another slice of itself inserted across the eyes, so that each pupil is a pupil-and-a-half. It looks like she is batting her eyelids, or maybe as though the film has jumped on the projector. It's funny but also sad, heartfelt but very, very clever. Do see this show.

Next Week:

Charles Darwent roams the subconscious with Susan Hiller at Tate Britain

Art Choice

The son steps out from his father's shadow in Lucien Pissarro in England, at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (to 13 Mar, above), which shows the illustrated books the artist printed with his wife. Hilary Lloyd's video art looks close-up at the everyday, prompting reflection on the technology of video at London's Raven Row gallery (to 6 Feb).

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?