The Many Faces of Suzy Lake

There is a smart irony in the title co-curators Georgiana Uhlyarik and Sophie Hackett have chosen for this retrospective exhibition. Called “Introducing Suzy Lake,” it includes over 50 works from 1970 to the present. A retrospective isn’t normally considered an introduction, especially for an artist who has been making important work for more than four decades, but the name tells the tale. In the case of Suzy Lake, contemporary art history has had to go back in time to recognize her present achievement.

Extended Breathing at the World Trade Centre, 2012-2014, chromogenic print, 113.03 x 152.4 cm. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto and Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto.

From the beginning she was interested in the places where pictorial formats crossed over into one another. Are You Talking to Me?, 1979, exists somewhere between painting and photography, as well as between cinema and wall art; Choreographed Puppets, 1976–77, uses a theatrical frame to investigate the tensions between being controlled and assuming agency; Miss Chatelaine, 1973, shifts along a line that includes fashion and mime; and Choreography and the Rope Trick, 1976, mixes drawing and photography.

On Stage, which she re-visioned between 1972–76, collapses fashion photography, performance and advertising in a low-tech slide presentation that ‘pictures’ how women viewed themselves and were seen by society in the early to mid-’70s. Most recently in Performing Haute Couture, 2014, she has filtered her early interest in fashion through the lens of the work on aging on which she has concentrated since 2001.

In Confrontation: the Shadow or the Wall, 1984, the artist wields a sledgehammer with which she seems about to attack the looming and overlarge image of her own shadow. “The double reading I was interested in,” Lake says, “is that the ghosts of oneself come to haunt us.” What this necessary and game-changing exhibition does is to introduce us to some ghosts who have been around, unrecognized, for too long a time. Bringing them together is a fortunate haunting.

The following interview is collaged from two conversations. The first occurred on May 22, 2013, when Suzy Lake was preparing for “Whose Gaze Is It Now?,” a survey exhibition at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie from June 7 to September 8, 2013. The second took place when she was in the final preparations for her retrospective called “Introducing Suzy Lake,” on exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario from November 5, 2014 to March 22, 2015.

Extended Breathing on the Steps of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 2013-2014, chromogenic print, 44.5 x 60 inches. Courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

Border Crossings: How much was your sensibility shaped by living in Detroit in the ’60s? Did your political self get constructed early on in the States?

Suzy Lake: Yes. It sounds like a social history lesson but my father was an American fly boy in World War II and I was raised, following the war, inside the American dream. It was the McCarthy era so everything was really conservative and when I was entering high school you could see how unfair things were; the cracks in that dream were visible. 2014While I had heard about civil rights when I was younger, I had no sense what that actually meant. But other voices were starting to speak out, like Lenny Bruce and a bit later the folk movement and Dylan. In the early ’60s being in a city in the States was polarizing; you either dug your heels into the American dream or you became very political.

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