You can thank John Stezaker’s hybrid portraits for the recent outbreak of severed sightless heads popping up on my blog over recent days, but another bit of the Kick-About #47 prompt was the specific title of Stezaker’s photographic collages – Marriage.
I happen to be married to someone who is willing to share his home with a disembodied head, and the guy who made it. These last photographs are for my husband, Paul, by way of reassurance: however weird things get, I’m still right here and very likely laughing my arse off.
Muses come in all shapes and sizes – even, it seems in the shape of a poorly-sewn head and an ox-blood coloured sofa.
As I went about my merry way, leaving my Stezaker-inspired fizzog about our narrow terraced house, certain set-ups offered up much more than others. There was something agreeably visceral about the rich, chuck-steak reds of our old leather sofa that really did the trick, with some of the resulting photographs channelling the likes of Ed Gein and the images of Joel-Peter Witkin.
All of this began simply enough: in response to the Kick-About No. 47, try and construct a new face from fragments in a John Stezaker-style, and in so doing, seek to produce something as unsettling as some of the photographer’s sepia chimeras.
Reaching for the remainders of some nylon tights and toy-stuffing left-over from the very first Kick-About, I set about sewing together a new face around the shell of a white balaclava. I wanted to produce a fine-art object, as opposed to anything too illusionist, something a bit deconstructed, with its seams showing and the fact of its construction left conspicuous. In this, I looked to Stezaker’s own collages, which likewise make no secret of their provenance of different parts.
The head-thing fabricated, I then left it about the house, like a thing left behind or dropped, and photographed it in situ. At times creepy, and at other times rather sad-seeming, this quickly-produced face-of-bits kept accruing personality and the uncanny ability to seem life-like, even in spite of its obvious anatomical imprecisions and sticky-out bits of thread. That’s the thing about faces, I suppose – even the ones fashioned badly out of tights and Kapok; we can’t help relating to them.
Our last Kick-About, inspired by the writings of Gaston Bachelard, encouraged us to examine our domestic spaces and think about the physical and emotional parameters of home. Now, with John Stezaker’s uneasy marriage between photographic fragments as our starting pointing, we’re exploring issues of identity, affinity and discord.
“Life can be scary – survival of the fittest – relationships can bring together different strengths, and if nothing more, give you the courage to bungle on. My image is simple – a river pushing dangerous detritus along – life. I was wanting to have an overlay of two figures swirling about and holding hands but it was too naive looking, and too complicated with the background, so I struggled to find an alternative representation. The lines represent two different shades of people (a couple – sorry such a vanilla representation of marriage) and their individual positive qualities merging to form a barrier protecting the couple from the detritus. The ring blur demonstrates how marriage can soften the edges of thorny life. The colour is joyous (I hope) as marriage is to me (if a lot quieter.)”
“When I started looking at John Stezaker’s ‘Marriage’, the thing that struck me most was that ever-present straight line running through each image, often more than once Was this the joint where two personalities dovetailed? Or a boundary line, safeguarding personal territory? Are people diminished by marriage? Or magnified? So I started thinking about some of the models of marriage I’ve come across. and came up with some ‘Marital Maths’.”
“I’m always doing that surrealist kind of thing with human bodies and collage so I decided to try something different. I liked the idea of using one or two inserted elements, as my work is usually much more complex. Instead of using classic film stars I decided to use the work of classic painters. I took Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, cut it up, and inserted it into works by Monet, Gauguin, Matisse and Homer. They work together quite well I think.”
“I luckily came across some old toys belonging to my grandsons which were waiting to be recycled and I thought they would look great if I combined a few of them and turned them into some very strange looking creatures. This then inspired me to do some collage using some old photos and magazine cuttings to create some more fantastical beings, which looked like they had sprung from the pages of a Marvel comic.”
“By putting two different images together Stezaker seems to create a third dimension, so, ‘sort of’ following this train of thought I’ve dovetailed two extreme scenarios on an old alarm clock set to silent. (Another thought.. weren’t the lurid green numbers painted with something containing uranium to make it shine in the dark?).
Scenario 1: Apocalypse – midnight on the doomsday clock. A young girl runs for her life, her clothes shredded, the sky dark, as a mushroom cloud reaches the stars.
Scenario 2: The clock strikes twelve. Cinderella flees from the ball as her coach, horses, footmen and dress disappear in a puff of pink smoke…the fairy Godmother waves her wand… Abracadabra!”
“A strange and unsettling prompt this time. John Stezaker’s work stirs up a variety of different feelings when I look at them, feelings that are quite difficult to articulate. There is something about the violence of cutting up a picture of a human face that makes such images as ‘Marriage’ quite a visceral experience for me. I can almost feel the slice of the scalpel, and I wince at the thought of accidents and slips with the knife; as an artist who uses collage a lot in my work, I’m well used to my hands sporting at least a couple of plasters covering cuts and scrapes.
Stezaker’s portraits also make me think of Francis Bacon paintings, of how he attacked the faces of his sitters in paint, carving them open with the brush to create images that look like something from a butcher’s shop window. I’ve gone down a similar route with my Kick-About response this week, cutting up photos of glamorous people from glossy magazines, smearing their faces with oil pastel, and mangling them further in Procreate to make fractured images of half-remembered nightmares.”
“Because Stezaker drew inspiration from dadaism and surrealism by kitbashing and appropriating images into bizarre collages, I decided to splice together some absurdities in a fun, no fucks given kind of way – all images nicked from the public domain, of course.”
“All of this began simply enough: try and construct a new face from fragments in a Stezaker-style, and in so doing, seek to produce something as unsettling as some of the photographer’s sepia chimeras.
Reaching for the remainders of some nylon tights and toy-stuffing left-over from the very first Kick-About, I set about sewing together a new face around the shell of a white balaclava. I wanted to produce a fine-art object, as opposed to anything too illusionist, something a bit deconstructed, with its seams showing and the fact of its construction left conspicuous. In this, I looked to Stezaker’s own collages, which likewise make no secret of their provenance of different parts.“
“The head-thing fabricated, I then left it about the house, like a thing left behind or dropped, and photographed it in situ. At times creepy, and at other times just rather sad-seeming, this quickly-produced face-of-bits kept accruing personality and the uncanny ability to seem life-like, even in spite of its obvious anatomical imprecisions and sticky-out bits of thread. That’s the thing about faces, I suppose – even the ones fashioned badly out of tights and Kapok; we can’t help relating to them.”
“The other bit of the prompt I was interested in was the title of Stezaker’s collages, ‘Marriage’: I happen to be married to someone who is willing to share his home with a disembodied head, and the guy who made it. These last photographs are for my husband, Paul, by way of reassurance: however weird things get, I’m still right here and laughing my arse off.”
With many thanks to regular Kick-Abouter, Marion Raper, we have our new prompt, the work of contemporary textile artist, Louise Baldwin. Have fun.
Bottles (1936), a Happy Harmonies animated short, directed by Hugh Harman, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Tellingly, when my husband looked over my shoulder and saw me watching this very grainy upload of Bottles, in preparation for writing this, he said fondly, ‘Oh, that one.’ For the next ten minutes, we watched the animation together, suitably transfixed. Afterwards, my husband said, ‘Yep, still scary’, and, happily, I agreed.
As a child, whenever an old-style cartoon came on the television, Bottles was the one I was hoping for. The story, such as it is, begins with an old apothecarist falling asleep one suitably stormy night, initiating a musical dream sequence in which the bottles on the surrounding shelves come to life to perform in a series of variety-style skits. Even as a nipper, I detected that Scooby-Do, Captain Caveman and their like were ‘cheap’ animations. Something about their flat colour and all the labour-saving devices of their locked, unmoving poses told me corners were being cut. I enjoyed these cartoons, of course – better those than Grange Hill, or worse, The Littlest Hobo, but for me they were the equivalent of those packets of Swizzel’s Rainbow Drops – puffed rice dyed colorfully; a bit cheap, a bit thin, a bit light, and always a bit disappointing. Not a proper sweet, only the semblance of one.
But from the opening moments of Bottles you know it’s different; there’s the aliveness of the rain, and the painterly expression of light, and the parallax of the different layers of scenery pulling you filmically into the frame. This is what a labour of love looks like, the art and graft of animated storytelling.
Narratively, Bottles has an exhausting ‘and then, and then, and then’ structure, which I enjoy guiltily, in so much as it forgoes the necessity of character development or other expectations of the craft. My own first forays into creative writing were comic book-style adventures committed to the pages of blue exercise books, in which a spaceman in a smart red suit encountered peril after peril, page after page – and then, and then, and then!
When I watch Bottles I am reminded of my own direct-to-the-page instinctiveness, telling stories with all the boring bits cut out; not for me the moments when the spaceman in the smart red suit had to eat, sleep or urinate; not for me, any long episodes of walking, or talking, or arriving or leaving. Instead, bring on the battalions of robo-spiders, the purple space-krakens and the erupting volcanoes; and then, and then, and then!
As a lecturer in story for animation, I always had to speak to the importance of the ‘three act structure’, and all the other established systems for organising narrative for audiences effectively. All good and useful stuff, but secretly, I loved it more when students worked instinctively and less rationally. When I think about the imaginative forces regulating Bottles, it’s not some careful calibration of narrative structures, but rather the primality of a fever dream.
That inanimate objects come to life when we sleep is one of those knowledges that all children share. That we both love and fear this idea is captured in Harmon’s animation. In Bottles, anthropomorphism is like a contagion, moving along the shelves of the apothecary, imparting rampant squash and stretch to anything it touches. What I especially enjoy about Bottles is its no-holds barred horror, which doesn’t simply reside in the animation’s more obvious macabre set-pieces. There is something uncanny itself about the style of the animation, no matter its subject-matter, disturbing in the same way as those incessant, arm-waving inflatable ‘tube-men’ outside car dealerships. It’s the failure of stillness and the absence of pause, the gangly, boneless, grabbiness of everything.
But it is the poison bottle-come-skeleton everyone remembers about this cartoon, if not its more innocuous-sounding title. This guy is truly the Halloween loadstar; from this cackling character every plastic skeleton in every joke shop, from this character, every plastic mask, and He-Man’s Skeletor, but all of them pale imitations. ‘Death walks the night!’ the skeleton croaks, before unstoppering its own head and administering the droplet of shrinking potion that begins the apothecarist’s surrealistic adventure at the outset of the cartoon. There’s a witch in the mix too, rubber-faced, grotesque, terrifying, and a trio of ghosts – the spirits of ammonia. For this little boy who liked his entertainment served with a hearty helping of morbidity, Bottles managed that most satisfying of combinations: cosy horror, feelings of comfort in a subtle blend with sensations of peril and fright.
In tone and in spectacle, Bottles reminds me strongly of The Mascot (1933) a remarkable black and white stop-motion film by Ladislas Starevich. This too is a tour-de-force of animism, and likewise shares with Bottles its scene-stealing evil character, in Starevich’s film, a yakking devil presiding over a bizarre night-spot popular with gurning turnip-people and ambulating detritus. Another thing the two animations share is their racist cultural stereotypes; The Mascot features a minor black character with exaggerated lips and Mohican-style hair, while Bottles treats us to the ‘dance of the Golliwog Perfume bottles’, accompanied, natch, by the beating of drums. I hardly need put the necessary caveats around this moment in the animation, or rather my discomfort about it as an adult viewer, but as the rest of the cartoon’s featured bottles pertain to real brands, I was curious to understand if ‘Golliwog Perfume’ was an incidence of a racial stereotype created specially for the cartoon’s roster of vaudeville routines. I was amazed to find Le Golliwogg was an actual real-world perfume, launched in 1919 in France, and in 1925 in USA, and that its bottle featured a particularly grotesque example of the golliwog character, designed by Michel de Brunoff and his brother-in-law Lucien Vogel, both of whom where editors of the French Vogue. And there was me thinking the skeleton was the most disturbing thing about Harman’s animated short.
It’s only when I re-watched Bottles that I understood how conspicuously it haunts some of my own stuff, not least the Chimera stories, which imagines a world in which all inanimate objects are capable of life. But Chimera owes more than a nod to the pitch of Bottles too, by which I mean its headlongness, and likewise my resistance to de-fanging some of the books’ more intense scenes, and so ensuring I leave in the bits I suspect will linger for longest in the impressionable minds of my younger readers. Looks like I have carried that skeleton around in my imagination for forty-plus years. Of course, I’m rather glad of it. “Death walks the night!”
Something macabre for this Friday’s blast-from-the-past, with a series of photographs taken in The Ossuary at St Leonard’s Church, in Hythe. It takes an effort of imagination to look at these collected skulls and keep remembering that once, these objects were receptacles for the great mysteries of the human heart and mind.
The fascinating thing about taking part in The Kick-About is the way in which it commits you to creative activities you couldn’t have predicted – as was the case recently when I ended up squeezed into my own shower, photographing a latex glove I’d inflated dangerously full with water… I was riffing on the prompt for the Kick-About No.27, de Chirico’s 1914 painting, The Song Of Love. There are certain levers you can pull to encourage uncanny effects, and dislocated body-parts is one such motif, and you can find this in The Song Of Love‘s flaccid rubber glove and disembodied head. Add to this the peculiarity of de Chirico’s emptied street scene, his faked, theatrical perspective, and the ambiguity of scale, and you’ve got a quietly unsettling tableau. I took three things from the de Chirico painting; the rubber glove, the perspective, and the uncanny, and sought to produce a worrisome little set-up of my own. My long-suffering husband barely raised an eyebrow as I waddled my flabby, moist and grossly distended friend into the corner of the shower room. I think he was more concerned by all the lights, trailing wires and the imminent threat of electrocution! The resulting images crawl away from de Chirico towards the likes of Cronenberg, and they remind me of the time I found a bloated sheep-tick hanging off my leg.
Aside from all the conspicuously unheimlich delights of Czech stop-motion animator and director, Jiří Barta’s 1989 short film, The Club Of The Discarded, a recent re-watch put me in mind of recent times: lock-down days of grinding similarity, the proximity of neighbours and their noise, the allure of difference, and feelings of redundancy.