‘Introducing Suzy Lake’ is the first large-scale exhibition to comprehensively address the influential artistic production of the American-Canadian artist Suzy Lake, whose early investigations were at the frontline vein of feminism in art. This rich exhibition, co-curated by Georgiana Uhlyarik and Sophie Hackett, features a well considered selection of photographic works, video, and archival materials, that pay tribute to an artist who has been named directly as an influence by countless others including Cindy Sherman.
As you first enter the show, you are greeted by ‘Beauty at a Proper Distance / In Song’ (2001-2002), a light-box triptych of a woman’s open puckered lips that initially resemble a cosmetic ad, but on closer inspection are revealed as Lake’s own lips complete with wrinkles, blemishes and whiskers. “[At the time] my catchphrase was, ‘I can do anything Britney Spears can do plus I can grow facial hair”, Lake states. Successfully preparing the audience for the rest of the exhibition, the work embodies Lake’s unique combination of politics and playfulness, which is her main strategy in the overarching explorations of the constructions and restraints of the relationship of identity and self to larger social forces such as gender, beauty, and body politics.
The title of Lake’s exhibition in itself is tongue-in-cheek, arising from her curators’ frustration over the lack of deeper critical understanding of her work. In conversation with the artist, she attributes this lack of critical focus as being “because of the gendered part of the work, people made assumptions of what it was about and thus were able to bypass it.”
In order to reacquaint us with Lake and bring this focus back, the exhibition successfully uses a minimal chronological structuring around the three cities of her life – Detroit, Montréal, and Toronto, which act more as punctuation marks throughout the show than the building of a biographical narrative. The result is a presentation that allows each of the fifty works on display the breathing space necessary to introduce the viewer to its own issues of identity.
While the exhibition comprises of many of Lake’s iconic early works, including a disorientating installation of the 88 large-scale photographs that comprise ‘Are You Talking to Me?’ (1979), it is her more recent series, ‘Extended Breathing’ (2008-2014) that shines. No longer needing to transform herself or to adorn other’s costumes in the struggle “to have a voice and understanding where that voice lands in the world,” Lake confronts yet also invites the viewer to question the erasure of oneself through social identity. For each of the works in the series, Lake attempts to stand still for hour-long exposures in spaces including the Detroit Institute of the Art and her own backyard. The result is the capturing of Lake’s subtle movements in a slightly out-of-focus figure that is grounded only by her clearly defined feet.
Although Lake’s aesthetics are firmly grounded in performance, it is hard to ignore, especially with works such as ‘Extended Breathing’, that this exhibition reveals Lake’s continual attention to the technical and expressive potential of photography. The manipulation of analogue processes that highlight the medium’s materiality seen in her earlier works such as ‘Impositions’ (1977), combined with the exploration of newer photographic technologies used in ‘Reduced Performing series’ (2008-2009), is surprisingly on par with contemporary photographic conversations currently being explored by younger generations, a connection with whom has been a main concern for Lake in recent years, especially with regard to discussions of beauty and ageism - “how can you really talk about that and keep your audience open to include younger generations… can younger people hear? What is the pertinence of that investigation?”
Overall, ’Introducing Suzy Lake’ is a historically meaningful exhibition that re-connects the public to an artist whose work has been wrongly kept on the sidelines. It succeeds with a selection of key pieces to highlight Lake’s conceptual trajectories, that despite the age of many of the works, look fresh and of the moment in terms of current cultural discussions on gender equality. It is fitting that the sole commissioned work for the exhibition is ‘Performing Haute Couture’ (2014), in which Lake performs in a two-piece Comme des Garcons suit for the camera shot by noted fashion photographer Miguel Jacobs. This is timely, considering the recent announcements of aged icons such as Joan Didion as the new face for fashion brand Céline. As in the early ‘70s, there is an upheaval afoot and once again, the instinctive and astute Suzy Lake is at its forefront.