Visual Arts Program

Saturday, January 14, 2006 — Saturday, February 18, 2006

Suzy Lake

Presented at:

Suzy Lake
Suzy Lake
Suzy Lake
Suzy Lake
Suzy Lake

Concealment Revealment
In the summer of 2003, I received an unsolicited submission of slides. Postmarked Toronto, the return address indicated “S. Lake” and I did a double-take. It seemed unlikely than anyone other than Suzy Lake would have that moniker, though it seemed equally unlikely (crazy, even) that Suzy Lake would be sending me a submission. To use an American, and Buffalonian, point of reference, it would have been like Cindy Sherman sending me a package.

Detroit-born Suzy Lake immigrated to Canada in 1968 as a direct response to the Vietnam War and the Detroit riots. She has long been recognized as a seminal artist of her generation. The work she began producing in the late 1960s and early 1970s functioned within the specific politicization of the era by emphatically playing with notions of identity and the body. It was a period when the Women’s Movement was as vocal and empowering as any other social force, culminating in 1975’s International Year of the Woman. In the time since, Lake’s work has found a place (or has been placed) within a variety of postmodern feminist contexts and one cannot deny its appropriateness to discussions of hierarchy, patriarchy, or the empowerment of the previously victimized.

I was 12 years old in 1975, but unless you were comatose you couldn’t fail to notice the ways in which all portions of the social fabric were frothing at the seams. It was more than fictional cigarette pitchwoman Virginia Slims having “come a long way, baby.” Women in television sitcoms, of all places, were radically empowered—Edith Bunker fought off a home invader and rapist while the middle-aged character Maude exerted her reproductive rights and had an abortion. The acronym for the National Organization of Women spelled NOW, not SOMETIME SOON. Even my young suburban boy brain understood that old paradigms were out and something else was struggling to situate itself.

So I cannot deny Lake’s work as a product and expression of that time, but in discussion, even Lake has referred to those early battles of idealism as “politically romantic.” My intrigue in Lake’s work arrives through a different tangent, within which the personal voice of the artist—regardless of gender or social status—is the dominant tone. There may always be a polemical subtext, but the works selected here are intended to trace a trajectory of serious play through a long career. Play in the service of discussing broad social ideas, sure, but play in the service of more personal issues as well.

Lake’s work speaks to me like a Robbe-Grillet novel, a terrain of shifting identities and roles that perpetually underline the question of self as set against the identity one chooses to express and the identity others perceive. A key work that illustrates the incongruity between these notions is Choreographed Puppets, a series of images in which Lake is seen suspended by hands and feet within a framed structure. The image is pulled back amply for us to see two (presumably male) figures atop the structure, swinging Lake in whatever direction they please. It is, on the one hand, an image of extreme vulnerability, a female figure confined within a situation and apparently controlled by extraneous forces. But the work also contains the rhetorical question “Who Pulls The Strings?” which has a double-edged answer. Some external force or center of power can always be seen as pulling the strings, but if we widen our frame of reference, the unavoidable (and ultimate) answer is: Suzy. Suzy pulls her own strings.

So, while Lake’s work can indicate notions of victimization, it has always simultaneously cut against that conceptual grain. It is the persistence, maintenance, and malleability of self that remains the most compelling aspect in her work. Within the context of perceived social roles, large essential questions can be asked. Not just who’s pulling the strings, but, as described in a text panel from the slide show On Stage:


The 80 images that comprise On Stage do not answer the question in a singular way. The majority of the images depict Lake in a fashion model guise, deliberate mimicry without a hint of satire—they look unerringly like fashion images of the era, rather than art images about fashion. Amid these are additional depictions of the artist—some childhood photos, the artist applying “whiteface” makeup, and a few contemporaneous “mug shots” of the young Lake—which lead us to speculate that the identity presented to us is being revealed and concealed simultaneously. On Stage does not designate a particular moment under the spotlight, but rather every moment, and within each moment, a perpetual choice. We are always on stage, our projections of self are always deliberate.

Lake’s body of work draws inevitable comparison with Cindy Sherman and both artists have cited their mutual admiration and influence. It was Sherman who invited Lake down to Buffalo in 1975 to speak at a class at Buffalo State College and participate in the exhibition Photographic Exhibition of Contemporary Camera Art (Hallwalls, October 16–28, 1975, co-organized with Richard Linklater), which also included Jann Groover, Ken Josephson, Les Levine, Joan Lyon, Nathan Lyon, and Duane Michals. On Stage recalls Sherman’s Film Stills, though the latter work more overtly expresses its artifice. Fraternal twins of different mothers. In considering Sherman and Lake (or, even, Hannah Wilke), it is not a question of “who came first,” but instead an illustration of concurrent practices in the same media navigating the same new territory.

Lake has never stopped playing with identity. The application of whiteface, creating a tabula rasa, is an obvious theatrical trope but one used effectively by Lake in certain early works. In the Co-Ed series, Lake’s whiteface gives added emphasis to the impact of merely changing one’s hairstyle and illustrates the ease and speed with which one’s chosen “image projections” can change. But it’s also notable how intently the artist’s internal persona shines through the make-up, from coy to concerned to (cheeks puffed) childishly impish.

That latter version, from Co-Ed Magazine #5, is the sort of buoyant gesture I see repeatedly throughout Lake’s body of work. It’s a deft and skillful thing to be of the politics and ideas of one’s time, yet still find room to silently suggest: You have no idea how much fun I’m having. Even an innocuous notion such as that plays into the bigger picture. Revealing some of one’s true self through the device of concealment within a chosen identity is a nifty little dance. Done well, it combines poignancy with politics with moments of spontaneous glee.

Thirty years later, there is no significant difference between these early expressions of personae and Lake’s more current manifestations. The bigger picture has shifted and Lake is no longer the young artist hacking and gnawing through identity questions. Now in her late 50s, Lake’s practice must acknowledge the overwhelming impact of youth culture and its implications for anyone who can no longer claim membership in that culture. Ageing is the only salient ingredient to be added to the question; otherwise, the posture remains one of absolute bravado.

Posed as “Suzy Spice” in the Forever Young series, Lake manages to “pass” as a younger women and her facade articulates a radiant and aggressive self-image. At the same time, wrinkles are not air-brushed and the signs of ageing are not masked in any way, so it is equally difficult to evade the sensation of the crazy spinster aunt who refuses to face the onward march of time. The allusion is pushed a little further in the Ciccolina Bar images, where Suzy Spice cavorts around a stripper pole in the bar owned by the Italian porn actress. There is a shrugging aplomb to Lake’s unabashed treatment of the impact of ageing on the self one chooses to project. During the last few years, Lake has adopted a terrific rhetorical question: “What can I do that Brittany Spears cannot do?” Answer? “Grow a postmenopausal beard!” In Pluck, we are presented with a typically private act, the coarse reality that is one hair’s breath beneath the façade, the essential precursor to whatever identity will be presented. Unlike the ebullient Forever Young images, Pluck and Ciccolina Bar contain a distant, perfunctory quality. The face being plucked is beautiful, aging, and stoic, while Suzy Spice’s expression while dancing in the bar is pure stripper-blasé. Pluck, strip, conceal, reveal, a gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do.

In Peonies and the Lido, ageing is also addressed, but here it is all façade. Referencing Luchino Visconti’s image of Dirk Borgarde at the conclusion of Death In Venice, Lake reclines on a chaise lounge, cigarette poised and visage pallid and deathlike, idealized beauty dying in the sun. Bookmarked by images of peonies in full bloom, the stilted effort to appear “forever young” reveals itself here as absurd and tragic.

There is something in the self-as-tableaux practice that introduces a doppel (or triple or quadruple) gänger aspect to the work. Dealing with multiple versions of the self must generate the sensation of chasing (or being chased by) one’s own shadow and Lake has directly addressed this notion in the work Confrontation With Shadow. Armed with a mallet, the drawn figure of the artist is about to demolish her own silhouette, which looms at three times the size of the artist. We catch the action mid-swing in a work situated roughly mid-career for Lake, and there’s no mistaking the intention. If the shadow appears omnivorous, the artist’s own sense of self is even more strongly asserted. She who pulls the strings also wields the mallet. In a departure from a career spent using primarily herself as a template for shifting personae, the last few years have included a series born from the popularity of the American Idol franchise. Using a cheap glitter curtain as backdrop, Lake began photographing actual contestants from the Toronto and Montreal auditions for Canadian Idol. Machinations toward fame are nothing new, but the Idol franchise has intensified the equation, repeatedly underscoring the harrowing symbiosis between self-perception and self-delusion. For every contestant who treats their Idol role for the professional artifice it is, there are ten more convinced that they, and no one else, are the cat’s absolute ass.

In early versions of the Idol work, Lake quoted the Spice Girls again, including the lyric fragment “so tell me whatcha want/what you really really want” as an identity-mantra within the piece. A throwaway pop song lyric, it is broadly applicable to much of Lake’s body of work and it whips us back to an earlier question about deliberate choice. What I really really want, what I think you really really want, the space between the two, and the self-projection that intentionally emanates from that.

Supplementing images of actual contestants, Lake has updated the piece with new contestants, drawn from the general public, the Toronto art community and, for this Canadian/Border Idol version, a select number of Buffalo art folk: a Hallwalls intern, local curators and artists, a young ballerina, and our outgoing Board President. Recognizing any of the contestants emphasizes the underlying point. It takes so terrifically little—a glitter curtain, some lip-syncing—to leap from actuality to artifice.

At some level, there is virtually no difference between the two. It may be impossible, somehow, to conceal oneself within a chosen self-projection without simultaneously revealing something else about one’s inner idol.

John Massier
Visual Arts Curator

Some publications related to this event:
January, 2006 - 2006
February, 2006 - 2006