An Interview with Suzy Lake

   

Suzy Lake, Performing Haute Couture #1 (2014), chromogenic print, 127 x 168.91 cm. Collection of the artist, courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto

Suzy Lake’s photographs give the distinct impression that she just can’t get close enough to her work, her subjects, or the politics she continues to explore and expose. Indeed, she is frequently in her pieces. Hailed as a master of self-portraiture, Lake scrutinizes issues associated with perceptions related to ageing, beauty, youth and gender. Her own journey is woven throughout her oeuvre, from her early years as a young, politically-engaged female artist, to her current status as a mature and established artist and feminist.

Lake was a child of Detroit’s civil rights movement during the 1960s, and played a pivotal role in Montreal’s cultural awakening during the 1970s. Today, she continues to forge new creative paths in Toronto, where she has lived and worked since the 1980s.

Her lasting role and influence on feminism and the art world are well known, as she continues to empower and engage viewers through her art. Her life and career have been captured in a new feature-length documentary by noted filmmaker Annette Mangaard called Suzy Lake: Playing with Time (2014). The documentary underscores Lake’s ongoing contributions through interviews with contemporaries such as Barbara Astman, Mary Beth Edelson, and Lisa Steele.

Over the past five decades of artistic exploration, Lake has continued to examine society’s perceptions and definitions of femininity, feminism, body politics and the social schisms surrounding these topics. The National Gallery of Canada has a number of Lake’s photographs in its permanent collection, some of which are currently on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) for the retrospective, Introducing Suzy Lake.

Suzy Lake recently spoke with NGC Magazine about her ongoing creative vision, and her current show at the AGO in Toronto.

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NGC Magazine: You grew up in a racially segregated neighbourhood in Detroit prior to, then during, the tumultuous 1960s. Did that shape the kind of art you do? Does it still shape your art?

Suzy Lake: Although my art favourites were Goya’s politicized works and the German Expressionists, when entering university in 1965 I was unaware of how to resolve the schism of what was happening on the street with what I would do in the studio. While living in the city core, I was active with community and political groups towards social change, but my art training was classical.

Social change was happening everywhere, not just Detroit. And yes, such deep economic and racial prejudice during my generation’s formative years inevitably leaves an indelible imprint. My artistic challenge was to resolve this division.

My work is often formed by recognizing an unbalanced political or social dynamic. I begin by constructing a visualized metaphor to un-braid or demystify the resistance.

  

Suzy Lake, 14 Over 28 (1975), gelatin silver print, graphite, 96.5 x 71 cm. Private collection, Toronto. Copyright Suzy Lake

NGCM : Your art is all about up-close, intense scrutiny. What are you looking for?

SL: My work asks questions about situations (injustices) that I don’t internally understand. The process of incorporating formal, expressive, material and technical elements in developing a piece allows time to orchestrate the various directions or layers of the issue. I am looking to understand these things on my own terms with a more empowered resolve.

NGCM: You have never studied photography — never even took a class or a workshop in photography. What ultimately drew you to taking pictures instead of painting, which is what you did study? 

SL: I taught myself photography, video and performance in the late 1960s. These programs were not offered in a BFA program at that time. At Wayne State University, I would have had to change my major to study film and photography in the Communications and Journalism program. While doing my MFA at Concordia, I specialized in Media and Photography (but this did not include technical instruction).

Drawing or painting topical subject matter tended to appear illustrative to me. I began to use the camera to document in-studio performances. Studying these images offered the possibility of staging for the camera.

 

Suzy Lake, Suzy Lake as Gary William Smith (1973–1974), 10 gelatin silver prints, 94 x 67.3 cm each. Collection of the artist, courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto

NGCM: You left the United States and moved to Canada with your husband and settled in Montreal where you discovered that, according to the Napoleonic Code in Quebec, you were your partner’s chattel, his property. Did the irony of that shape your art while you were living there? Was that kind of an, “OMG, can I ever do something with this!” discovery?

SL: I was astounded to see this on our entry application; but, ironic or not, it was not the time to point this out to our interviewer. Yet in Montreal I clearly found women to be actively engaged in political and social change, following their repression during the Duplessis era. The OMG was probably distilled with resisting other patriarchal attitudes of the time regarding the representation of women.

NGCM: When did you know that you wanted to explore and expose gender and social issues through art?

SL: I think I always felt I wanted my art to have something to do with life. The gender issues emerged out of the social issues.

NGCM: What issues still prompt or provoke you to create art?

SL: I like to see a good marriage of form and content. I still deal with the politics of the body. In some series I may push the content further, and in others I may push the visual strategies further.

NGCM: The AGO exhibition Introducing Suzy Lake follows you in images across five decades, starting in the 1960s.The show features two works from a brand-new series, Performing Haute Couture (2014), created specifically for this exhibition. Can you tell us about these works?

SL: About five or six years ago, I wanted to return to the idea of very minimal performance and duration in my earliest work. This began with the Extended Breathing work and Reduced Performing series. When my fashion photographer friend, Miguel Jacob, invited me to model for him in an editorial spread, I felt it was a very cheeky experience to participate with 20-year-old models. I am 67. This, combined with the architectural elements in some haute couture designers, led me to look for a garment that would suggest a specific gesture. For this work, I chose Comme des Garcons. The morning coat’s knot at the elbow suggested a cantilever movement.

 

Suzy Lake, Imitation of Myself #1 ... (1973/2012), chromogenic print, 111.2 x 108. Private collection, Toronto. Copyright Suzy Lake

NGCM: The National Gallery has many of your works in its permanent collection, some of which are currently on loan to the AGO for Introducing Suzy Lake — for instance, Choreographed Portrait (1976). Can you explain the intent or the motivation behind this work?

SL: After conceptually using the portrait for several years, I discovered several 1880s parlour photographs with long exposures, but the sitters were still. I chose to use this exposure time to walk into the pose. I then painted a garden landscape onto the photograph to mimic the 1880s painted backdrop. I am in a white leotard and staring into the lens, which brings the portrait into the 20th century. 

NGCM: Introducing Suzy Lake also includes a re-creation of Are You Talking to Me? (1979), an installation of more than 70 photographs. This installation has not been seen in its entirety since the early 1980s. What did you feel, installing this work again, for the first time in over 30 years?

SL: I love the challenges of installation work. Although the sequences were set pieces, their order was directed by the visual flow and intensity build-up of the “conversation.” The architecture of the room always comes into play. The AGO installation process allowed me to re-live this thrill.

NGCM: Annette Mangaard’s feature-length documentary, Suzy Lake: Playing with Time also examines how much has changed in the worlds of feminism and art, as well as how much has remained the same. How did that documentary leave you feeling about these issues?

SL: After teaching for 40 years, I have many thoughts about the reaction to feminism. Specific to the film, it includes a number of women who spoke of resistance to the supposed opportunities they were gaining. I hope the film gives younger women the insight to watch for the glass ceiling, and the courage to dismantle it.

NGCM: What do you want the viewing public to see or experience through your work?

SL: My work is directed by performance strategies, with the intent of having the audience identify their own emotions through the figure. A metaphor is constructed to represent a social dynamic the audience may be familiar with in their own lives. With luck, they will understand the dynamic to see an empowerment in its resolve.

  

Suzy Lake, Extended Breathing While Highlights Travel (2009), colour transparency, lightbox, 101.6 x 152.4 cm. Purchase, funds donated by Donna G. Billes and Diana Billes, 2014. Art Gallery of Ontario. Copyright Suzy Lake

NGCM: What would you like to create next?

SL: I have already begun a project where I have photographed all my family’s residences from 1880 to 1925. It is less genealogical and more a story of working-class Detroit’s urban development, decay and recycling.

NGCM: What advice would you give to a young artist?

SL: Enjoy the pleasure of art history’s visual language, and realize the consistencies of your taste. Listen to your “now.” Make your own work.

To view works by Suzy Lake in the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection, please click here. 

For information on Suzy Lake’s exhibition on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until March 22, 2015, please click here. You can also see interviews with Suzy Lake by clicking here.

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