Suzy Lake, photographer, performance artist, video maker (born 14 June 1947 in Detroit, Michigan). Lake is an influential feminist artist who addresses issues of identity, beauty, gender, and aging in her visual and performance art. She was also an early adherent of the artist-run centre movement in Canada. Lake is represented in the collections of major institutions in Canada and internationally like the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.
Early Life and Education
Lake studied painting, drawing and printmaking in Detroit, Michigan, at Wayne State and Western Michigan universities. While a student at Wayne State, Lake was politically active. Among other activities, she volunteered with Detroit Mothers, an organization that helped single mothers in the infamous Jeffries Housing Projects by taking care of their children for a few hours during the day. During the Detroit race riots of 1967, which took place in her neighbourhood, Lake realized that the political situation had deteriorated beyond repair and that she had to leave.
Lake considered moving to New York and to Boston, but because her painter boyfriend wanted to escape being drafted into the Vietnam War, she ended up immigrating to Montréal in 1968.
In 1971, Lake became the studio assistant of Guido Molinari, who also served as her mentor. Self-taught in film, photography, performance art and video, Lake was an active member of the Montréal artistic community in the early 1970s, and in 1972 she co-founded the artist-run gallery Véhicule Art Inc. In 1977, she graduated from Concordia University with an MFA in multidisciplinary/photography.
From an early stage of her career, Lake has practised a form of conceptual art that uses photography not as a transparent record of reality but as a means of communication and inquiry. Using her own performances, which are consciously staged for the camera, Lake investigates the appearance, gestures and positions of the body as a metaphor for psychological conditions. In series such as Suzy Lake As (1974) and Are You Talking to Me? (1979), her subtle manipulation of facial features or use of confrontational expressions actively engages the viewer's participation. Later photographs, such as the Pre-Resolution series (1984), and Too Many Stones (1996), show the body as an active force rather than as the object of our gaze. By showing herself engaged in acts of destruction or reconstruction, the artist further dramatizes the self-transformation involved in posing for the camera.
As an artist who has always addressed issues of the identity, gender, and politics of the female body, it was natural for Lake to turn her attention to aging. In the three triptychs that comprise Peonies and the Lido (2002), for instance, the two outer panels have close-ups of pink peonies, while the central panel contains images of Lake in a chaise lounge on Lido Isle in Venice, dressed as Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (or rather as actor Dirk Bogarde playing Aschenbach in Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation of the story). Dressed in white linen, her face heavily made up with mascara ringing her eyes, Lake not only ironizes the morbid, decadent story, but also underscores the fragility and therefore the mortality of the body.
For her Reduced Performing series of 2008 and 2009, Lake had images of herself made on a flatbed scanner. In these works, her body is completely one-dimensional and objectified, as though the images were made for purely medical purposes: here the body is without subjectivity, just an abstract system of interrelated parts.
Honours and Exhibitions
Suzy Lake's works have been widely exhibited across Canada, including solo shows at Mount Saint Vincent University Gallery, Halifax (1997), the Art Gallery of York University, Toronto (with Martha Rosler; 1996), the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (1993) and the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, Guelph (1992). A survey of her work, Political Poetics, was mounted at the University of Toronto Art Centre in 2011, and a full retrospective of her career, Introducing Suzy Lake, opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the fall of 2014. Group exhibitions have included shows at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (2007), the Santa Monica Museum (2007), the Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon (1993) and the International Center of Photography, New York (1978).
Her work is represented in many public collections including those of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, the Musée d'Art Contemporain (Montréal), the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Musée du Quebec (Québec City) and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo).
Lake began teaching at the University of Guelph in 1988, eventually becoming Professor in the Department of Fine Arts; she retired in 2008. In 1997, Lake was awarded the Toronto Arts award for visual art. She is also a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.