It’s Nice to Meet You Suzy Lake

Suzy Lake’s retrospective show of photo-based works at the Art Gallery of Ontario entitled Introducing Suzy Lake is quite the introduction. The head wall text begins with a quote from Lake stating “I don’t try to say what my identity is. I’m not some heroine recounting my life. I use myself as a model because I need a constant, a vulnerable subject as a reference point.” This statement is truly telling of her process as an artist whose themes involve constructed identities and in this endeavour it is important to retain a real referent amidst a series of false identities.

Suzy Lake, Miss Chatelaine, 1973, gelatin silver print, 50.5 x 40.7 cm, printed 1996. Purchased with fund donated by AGO members, 1998. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.  © 2014 Suzy Lake.

It is hard to approach this exhibit without being reminded of Cindy Sherman’s work especially because of her recent retrospective at the MOMA. Even so, Lake’s work departs from Sherman in its wide breadth of concepts and her translations of those concepts. While Sherman explores identity in a fairly homogenous style Lake’s work has changed throughout her years as an artist. For example, Lake’s 1975 work “14 Over 28” she has exposed a rephotographed school portrait, but only used two-thirds of the photographic paper. On the remaining portion Lake drew her 28 year old self to demonstrate how different identities can exist within us simultaneously. While her 2008-2014 piece called “Extended Breathing Series” is a minimalist performance where Lake laid within a scanner and performed life-affirming actions: blinking, breathing and crying. These works create an uncanny tension between activity and stillness. These works created years apart retain their individual integrity without relaying on one another for validation. Each piece in this exhibit has compelling conceptual work as well as successful images to explore her concepts.

Suzy Lake, 14 Over 28, 1975, gelatin silver print, graphite, 96.5 x 71 cm. Private Collection, Toronto. © 2014 Suzy Lake.

Suzy Lake, Extended Breathing While Highlights Travel, 2009-2010, color transparency, lightbox, 101.6 x 152.4 cm. Purchase, funds donated by Donna G. Billes and Diana Billes, 2014. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. © 2014 Suzy Lake.

While the first half of the exhibit consists of a multitude of photographs ranging in time and concept, the final half is a single series entitled “Are You Talking to Me?”. This series, consisting of 88 large scale self-portraits, was created in 1979. The series was inspired by Robert De Niro’s famous scene in the film “Taxi Driver” (1976). Lake created the portraits by repeating the question “are you talking to me?” over and over again creating a dialogue between herself and the viewer. To curate this series, the walls of a large clean room bear only the rhythmic narrative of varying expressions of anxiety. Each work has been specifically manipulated by the artist, some photos are in colour, others in black and white, while others are torqued by heating and stretching the negatives. The sheer length and amount of expressive portraits creates an eery space for contemplation. While reflecting upon the identity of Lake and