Suzy Lake with her exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (photo by Veronika Roux-Vlachova)

Suzy Lake in her exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (photo by Veronika Roux-Vlachova) (click to enlarge)

TORONTO — Artist Suzy Lake is many women at once in her work, but in life, she is a singular, deeply influential artist who began exploring the constructed nature of femininity and identity before Cindy Sherman ever donned a wig or set of buck teeth.

A retrospective of Lake’s career, on view now at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), is the most comprehensive yet. Co-curators Georgiana Uhlyarik (associate curator of Canadian art) and Sophie Hackett (associate curator of photography) provide solid insights about Lake’s influence on feminist conceptual art history and highlight her recent examination of aging, using her own body as a tabula rasa.

Suzy Lake, “14 Over 28” (1975), gelatin silver print, graphite, 96.5 x 71 cm, private collection, Toronto (© Suzy Lake) (click to enlarge)

“Most of my works started with a question,” she reflected during a tour of the show. “I’m trying to find something out.”

Born in Detroit in 1947, Lake studied drawing, painting, and printmaking at Wayne State and Western Michigan universities. She was politically active as a student, and though she didn’t come from a family of artists, Lake’s grandfather would watch Diego Rivera working on his Detroit Industry frescoes at the Detroit Institute of the Arts while on breaks from repairing the roof of the Henry Ford Hospital, where Frida Kahlo was recovering from her second miscarriage.

After the city’s 1967 riots, Lake moved to Canada with her draft-dodging husband, settling in Montreal, where she was mentored by painter Guido Molinari. She became an active member of the city’s creative community and graduated from Concordia University with an MFA in photography and multidisciplinary work in 1977.

Suzy Lake, “Suzy Lake as Gary William Smith” (1973–74), 10 gelatin silver prints, 94 x 67.3 cm each, collection of the artist (courtesy Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto)

The majority of Lake’s work has focused on aspects of female identity — particularly beauty and fashion — as social constructs. Like Cindy Sherman, she’s often the subject of her own art, but unlike Sherman, Lake only occasionally uses costumes; there isn’t a reliance on artifice, but rather the use of it as one of many techniques within her creative toolbox. With a mix of thought-provoking stillness and wry impishness, Lake uses her own experiences to question societal expectations of women, in particular their appearances and roles. She photographs herself in various locations and circumstances — making herself into a human marionette in “Who Pulls The Strings” (1976), for instance, with attendant wooden scaffold — to explore these ideas with frequently thought-provoking poignancy.

Suzy Lake, “Beauty at a Proper Distance/In Song” (2001–02), color transparencies (3), 140 x 122 cm each, collection of the artist (courtesy Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto, © Suzy Lake)

Many of the questions in the AGO show, Introducing Suzy Lake, have multiple answers, or aren’t meant to be answered at all but instead to inspire a contemplation of underlying tensions, one of which comes through Lake’s mix of politics and playfulness. “Suzy Lake as Gary William Smith” (1973–74) shows the artist gradually transforming into a man over a course of (pre-Photoshop) shots (she used stencils and multiple exposures between two negatives in the darkroom). A similar blend of commentary and curiosity can be found in later works, such as “Beauty at a Proper Distance/In Song” (2001–02), a huge triptych that features extreme close-ups of Lake’s mouth as she sings. The wrinkles and wiry hairs around her mouth are particularly pronounced, challenging preconceived notions of beauty, even as the piece conjures images (and experiences) related to digital profiles and modern dating. The work greets visitors at the start of Introducing Suzy Lake.

“I think that when I started out, the playfulness … that’s not what art looked like at the time,” Lake says. “It worked against me in terms of like the art community — in terms of the macho art community. It worked for me in terms of the integrity of the work, though. I wasn’t using an actor or actress; there was something more real. If I could be playful, then I could also move into being more raw.”

Suzy Lake, “Are You Talking to Me?” (1979), gelatin silver prints (5) and chromogenic prints (2), various dimensions, from 81 x 53 cm to 94 x 63.5 cm each, purchased with the assistance of Art Toronto 2009 Opening Night Preview and the David Yuile and Mary Elizabeth Hodgson Fund and Greg Latremoille, 2009, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (© Suzy Lake)

Lake’s unfiltered emotion is perhaps most viscerally experienced in “Are You Talking To Me?” (1979), a riff on the famous scene from Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. The work, comprised of 88 prints, shows the artist channeling the film’s narrative and responding unchecked to her own personal and political circumstances, using exaggerated, frequently aggressive facial expressions and body language. Various artistic effects — stretching, the use or lack of color — highlight the rhythmic interplay between conversation and confrontation. Arranged at the AGO in a kind of sprawling zigzag, the work inspires both delight and discomfort; Lake’s face surrounds you, sometimes on three sides, and you can’t help but feel she’s watching you through the photos, many of which depict her glaring, baring her teeth, or staring wild-eyed. Lake remarked that she thinks of this work “as conversation,” adding, “you can feel the portraits behind you.” No kidding.

Suzy Lake (photo by Veronika Roux-Vlachova) (click to enlarge)

Lake, in person, is far from the scary figure of “Are You Talking To Me?” A petite woman with a broad smile, she was intrigued when I asked if she sees a link between her work and the contemporary selfie obsession. “Certainly there was no such thing as ‘selfies’ back then,” she said, referring to the early part of her career. “I always used me in the photographs rather than hiring a model because I felt that these are things that I’m working through. I’m always evaluating the human condition in the context of whatever time it is, and what that imposition is on us — or resistance is to us. I think a lot of selfies are made to affirm ‘who I am’ and ‘I am here,’ which goes back to using myself. It’s not about me; I’m representing someone, everyone.”

That freedom to explore “everyone” was made significantly easier for Lake by choosing to stay in Canada. “At the point I was leaving Montreal (in the late 1970s), I was very seriously thinking about moving to New York because I still had my American citizenship. But I realized if I went, I probably wouldn’t be able to get part-time teaching jobs, which, poorly paid as they are, paid a lot more than waitressing did. And I had a daughter, so I kind of realized that, hard as I had to work my way through mid-career, with a job and a family and everything, it would’ve been harder in New York.

“When I had my daughter it was like an isolated incident in the community, and you know, I had male artists saying, ‘Don’t you believe in your career? What are you doing that for?’” she added.

Suzy Lake, “Extended Breathing While Highlights Travel” (2009), color transparency, lightbox, 101.6 x 152.4 cm, purchase, funds donated by Donna G. Billes and Diana Billes, 2014, Art Gallery of Ontario (© Suzy Lake)

Struggles aside, Lake said she doesn’t buy Tracey Emin’s notion of female artists being unable to balance art and family life. “I think she’s wrong. I’ve had parts and periods of my life where I wasn’t very happy, and I was having to teach more than I wanted to, but everything was interesting, something always lead somewhere,” Lake said. “I have a beautiful daughter who’s given me two beautiful grandchildren, I’ve always enjoyed teaching. I did have to work my whole career … and I do feel I have it all. It’s a very rich life.”

Introducing Suzy Lake continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) through March 22.

Corrections: This article originally misstated a few points about Lake’s life and work. Her grandfather watched Rivera paint, not her father; her draft-dodging boyfriend was in fact her husband; she used stencils and multiple exposures, not makeup and costume, to make “Gary William Smith”; and “Are You Talking To Me?” shows the artist channeling Taxi Driver but not reciting from its script. All have been fixed.

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Catherine Kustanczy

Catherine Kustanczy is a freelance arts journalist and broadcaster. She has worked in Dublin, London, Toronto, and New York City, in a variety of editorial capacities for film, TV, radio, and digital....