Suzy Lake

Bill Clarke on a seminal performance artist rediscovered

By Bill Clarke

Thin Green Line, 2001, chromogenic print. Courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto

Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, 29 April – 13 August

Originally from Detroit, but a Canadian resident since the late 1960s, Suzy Lake has pursued a photo- and performance-based practice concerned with forms of social and institutional control that impress themselves on our lives. Like her contemporaries Martha Wilson, Hannah Wilke and valie export, Lake has created work critical of the mass media’s representations of women, often using herself as the subject. This survey brings together approximately 50 images, as well as maquettes and contact sheets, produced between 1976 and 2014. It’s a solid introduction to Lake’s work but falls short in fully demonstrating how truly prescient her five-decade career has been.

The exhibition begins with a video projection of Choreographies of the Dotted Line (1976), which shows Lake on the floor, wrapping herself in a long piece of fabric printed with a row of black bars. The phrase ‘sign on the dotted line’ springs to mind, which suggests one reason why the artist seems to resist her voluntary encasement – the act of affixing one’s signature to a document, whether to secure a bank loan or a lease, usually requires relinquishing some control over one’s life. In the end, Lake extricates herself, but that process is no less arduous.

Her constrained body reappears throughout the exhibition. Two large prints from the series Impositions (1977) depict Lake struggling against bindings wrapped around her torso, knees and wrists. She manually heated and stretched the original negatives, producing small rifts in the acetate that, when scaled up, appear as daggerlike shapes aimed at her figure. Lake’s body becomes a blur in Choreographed Puppets (1976–7), a series that finds her trussed up, and her arms and legs tied like a marionette. Although Lake doesn’t see this work as specifically ‘feminist’, it is easily read through that lens since the two figures sitting atop the structure surrounding her, pulling the straps that swing her around, are men.

Lake’s production slowed somewhat in the 1980s and turned towards installation and site-specific work, much of which now exists only through documentation. For such reasons, this decade is represented by just a few images from two visually linked series sharing the title Pre-Resolution: Using the Ordinances at Hand (1983–4), picturing Lake hammering at a wall with a mallet. From there, the show jumps ahead by more than a decade to works that take on the theme of the ageing female body. Confrontational yet wryly humorous, the images comprising Pluck (2001) and Beauty at a Proper Distance (2012) focus on the artist’s chin and immaculately lacquered lips, photographed in the glossy style of fashion magazines; however, the artist has let wiry hairs grow in. This jab at the media’s (lack of) representations of women beyond a certain age builds on Lake’s critiques from the early 1970s. Regrettably, none of that work is here. Series like Miss Chatelaine (1973), for which Lake cut out models’ hairstyles from the Canadian women’s magazine Chatelaine and collaged them onto photos of herself, or On Stage (1972–4), in which she examines the ‘performance’ of female identities (eg the vamp, the girl next door), set the stage for artists such as Cindy Sherman (who has acknowledged Lake as an inspiration).

Including such works would have strengthened the exhibition’s positioning of Lake as the groundbreaking artist that she is; however, this lack is partially made up for by the inclusion of some rarely – if ever – seen works. For example, the photographic series Puppet Studies (1976) feature Lake in a white bodysuit against a dark background, with threads stitched into the paper transforming her, once again, into a marionette. Such works remind us that our interactions with institutions or other people always come with strings attached.

First published in the September 2017 issue of ArtReview