Curated with wit by Sophie Hackett and Georgiana Uhlyarik, ‘Introducing Suzy Lake’ offers selections from an oeuvre spanning nearly five decades. Tracing a path through Detroit, Montreal and Toronto – the cities in which Lake has lived – the show’s story is driven by one central character, photography, as a malleable medium for expressing struggles with identity, as a woman, as a consumer, as a person. Her imagery reflects the predicaments of being on display, performing for others with varying degrees of criticality, social satire and emotional evocation.
Lake’s recent works are especially under-recognized, but exemplary of her project, exploring the limits of selfhood while employing commercial imaging technologies in unconventional ways. For each still photograph in the ‘Reduced Performing’ series (2008–09), Lake lay upon a 2.5 m flatbed scanner for 12 minutes while blinking, breathing or crying. The machine fails to capture these behaviours, outputting life-sized photos with a profusion of pixilation. Repositioned from the horizontal orientation of clinical scanning to a vertical wall, the artist’s body looks suspended, like a perplexed puppet – vulnerable, waiting to be evaluated by others.
Lake’s critique often targets commercial consumerism in more assertive ways, as in A One Hour (Zero) Conversation with Allan B. (1973), a grid of 30 black and white photographs of Lake wearing white-face makeup, which – according to the mime tradition – represents a neutral state. The images show her shutting her eyes, lighting a cigarette and caught mid-sentence in ways that are not photogenic. Lake circles a few photos with a felt pen, playing the role of fashion editor. This emphasizes the importance of the editorial process, although her selection of images seems arbitrary. The project is comparable to those of contemporaries such as John Baldessari – for instance, his ‘Choosing’ series from 1972. However, Lake makes use of grid formats with a relatively emotional resonance (compared to first-generation Conceptualists for whom it often served as a rationalist trope), creating tense feelings of difference. She uses the rigidity of the format to express the pressures of conformism. In a related grid work, Miss Chatelaine (1973), Lake’s whitened face and shoulders are comically combined with collaged images of different fashionable hairstyles. Her expression unflatteringly shifts from a stunned daze to a distracted glance to a preoccupied grin. Such satirical playfulness continues to operate in works such as Suzy Lake as Gary William Smith (1973–74), a grid that documents the gradual transfer of a friend’s bearded face to hers. While comparable to contemporaneous experiments by Ana Mendieta, Lake exerts relatively high levels of exacting labour and compositional craft, using a range of masks and stencils in order to achieve the effect of a seamless transition from one self to another. And yet, Lake chose to obscure bits of bearded face, scratching them with a felt pen, adding a dose of dead-serious doubt about whether images can express authentic aspects of anybody at all.
The large-scale installation Are you talking to me? (1978–79) features 76 gelatin-silver portraits, all depicting Lake’s face and shoulders, offering expressive conditions that range from despair and despondency to panic and rage. The work was inspired, in part, by the famous scene in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), in which the isolated anti-hero, Travis Bickle, repeatedly rehearses the same set of words, intended to address both himself and others. Lake arranged the images as a continuous frieze but the format of the prints seems remarkably diverse, in part because of the stress exerted on them: Lake laboriously heated and stretched the negatives and, after printing, added tinted details by hand, paying particular attention to the mouth, a source of pleasure, consumption and speech. But it is the proliferation of pictures – with each framed print implying an urgent, yet failed, attempt at representation – that collectively contribute to a sense of the decentred and disoriented self. Indeed, across this whole show Lake proves her mastery at exploring the material limits of photography, while communicating complex emotional and social conditions.