Art gallery

Staving off freelancer hermitism, I’ve decided to get myself out of the house, find other places to work every once in a while. So today I’m at York Art Gallery. It’s a great spot – there are comfy seats, a respectable wifi signal and a serenity rarely found at home.

Just the gentle background hum of polite coughs and slow footsteps, interrupted by the occasional flat automated voice of the lift, filling the silence with a notification of her movements. It’s all nice, the perfect environment for getting my head down and some work done. Except no. Within minutes, it becomes apparent that this was all a terrible, stupid idea. I forgot about one little thing. This place is full of art. Bloody art.

How am I supposed to get anything done when there’s all this art staring at me, demanding attention and appreciation? And it’s not just any art. Right now (and until April 15), York Art Gallery is hosting Paul Nash and the Uncanny Landscape: An Exhibition Curated by John Stezaker.

The interwar paintings of Nash and his contemporaries don’t interest me so much, but the Stezaker half of the show is particularly diverting. Deadlines be buggered, I make a beeline to the room housing dozens of his distinctive pieces.

Full disclosure – pretty much every time I enter an art gallery I succumb to a few shameful moments of knee-jerk “Well I could’ve done that” response (joining other heretical art gallery thoughts jostling in my head, such as “Can I just go to the shop and buy some postcards now?” and “This place would be great for Laser Quest” and “I NEED TO TOUCH EVERYTHING”) and this time is no different.

I mean, look at it – collage is easy! It’s one of the basic skills you need as a parent. Just cut some pictures out of Grazia and liberally apply Pritt Stick … maybe some pasta shapes, crepe paper, rainbow stickers, glitter, hair … right?

Such philistinism soon passes though. I’ve been getting into collage a lot recently (thanks in part to a wonderful Mark Lazenby illustration for this very column, in part to picking up an old copy of Terry Gilliam’s Animations of Mortality). Spending time up close with Stezaker’s work, I appreciate the craft of it even more.

Most of his pieces feature only a couple of images. It’s not so much about the physical act of chopping and sticking pictures (although that is awfully satisfying); it’s about the selection, the editing, the cropping. He takes two points of the universe and reconfigures them just so. I’d love to see his studio, the piles and piles of books and magazines and postcards rejected in favour of these finished pairings.

Glamorous portraits of Hollywood starlets are interrupted by trees and caverns and cliffs. Landscapes contort into new dimensions with a simple diagonal intersection slicing across the image. Land and sky become one disorientating Möbius horizon. He digests a century of photography and finds uneasy connections between glamour and horror. It’s all quite beautiful, absurd and unsettling.

Collage is about finding new meaning in existing images; a direct line between idea and composition. Perhaps that’s why I like it – I identify with it as a pure form of design more than as art. Most of Stezaker’s pieces are a text box away from being fantastic book covers. Which reminds me … I’m supposed to be doing some of that myself. Time to abandon this accursed temple of wonderful distraction and find somewhere I can concentrate without being surrounded by hundreds of lovely things that demand to be appreciated. The library maybe. But first, some postcards.

Written for Creative Review