Walking up Beverley Street on the overcast, relatively mild December afternoon I saw the AGO in a whole new light. The big brilliant blue box was incandescent against stark black and white.
The exhibition I came to see – Introducing Suzy Lake – is on the fourth floor of the Gallery.
I’ve always associated Suzy Lake with Montreal: cool, remote, sophisticated, avant garde in a sort of unknowable way, so I was surprised to learn that she has been living right here in Toronto for the past more than thirty years.
Who is this woman with the magical name? Who is Suzy Lake?
At the AGO Suzy Lake is seen through the decades: the demure high school portraits altered with a sketched in older self; transforming, with hilarious effect, into local icons of the Montreal art scene; slathering on white face or makeup within a grid of images; adopting kittenish fashion poses of the era; homewrecker (with a sledge hammer); domestic drudge; aging Lothario; puppet, matron in haute couture…. On and on, Suzy Lake presents Suzy Lake, as art. That is the core of her work: the female persona that just happens to be her.
Detail of 16 over 28
Suzy Lake as Francois Sullivan
A Genuine Simulation of...
Suzy Lake creates a fascinating tension between the notion of Everywoman and her unique individual self. We see her again and again and again but we don’t get inside her head.
Peonies and the Lido #7
The coherence of this body of work, and the way it unfolds in the context of the exhibition, is truly impressive. Throughout it has a consistency and unwavering direction, no side trips or blind alleys here. She understands media – print, tv, film, music – and turns it back on itself through her own filter.
The name Travis Bickle will ring a bell with anyone who lived through the seventies. The protagonist of the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver famously asked “Are you talking to me?” in the 1976 movie view of a dystopic New York City. Suzy Lake spoke these words in a state of agitated confrontation and this massive photographic piece, recently recreated, documents the performance. In the movie Robert DeNiro was crazy; a Vietnam vet whose alienation led him to violence. To me Suzy Lake seems to speak about a different kind of alienation and frustration, that of the objectified woman who has had enough.
“Are You Talking to Me?”
One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is Suzy Lake decked out in a Rei Kawakubo outfit. This work is powerful and playful at the same time. She looks directly at the viewer with startling confrontation daring them to insinuate that her getup is just verging on absurdity.
Performing Haute Couture
A film “Suzy Lake: Playing with Time”, by Annette Mangaard, was visible near the end of the exhibition. It provided a great deal of background about Suzy Lake’s life and influences. I was not prepared for the joyless tone taken in this movie. For example Lisa Steele and Martha Wilson, both extraordinary artists with histories rich in community and accomplishment, spoke with grim faces about loneliness and struggle in their early careers. Surely it must have been exhilarating, even fun, to take on the male dominated art world, push forward and thrive? Something about her expression in the Performing Haute Couture piece tells me that Suzy Lake is definitely enjoying the game.