Suzy Lake: Renaissance Woman
Mention the name of veteran artist Suzy Lake at a gathering of artists in Canada, and be prepared to be greeted with a chorus of “Suzy Lake! She’s amazing!” After absorbing nascent strains of Conceptual and Feminist Art in the U.S., Lake moved to Montreal in 1968. There, she embarked on a practice that went on to embrace performance, film, video and photography. Relocating to her current home of Toronto in the late-70s, Lake continued to make work informed by Conceptualist and Feminist principles, but always seemed to fly under the radar even as world-famous art stars like Cindy Sherman built upon Lake’s early work and acknowledged her as an influence.
Within the last few years, though, it seems as though Lake’s work is beginning to receive the consideration it deserves. Recent high-profile exhibitions such as WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (in which Lake was included), has led to a reappraisal and repositioning of early Feminist art. Nowadays, Lake and other artists such as Lee Lozano, Martha Rosler, Eleanor Antin, Lynda Benglis and Martha Wilson are at the fore of contemporary art discourse.
Given how sought-after Lake has been lately, it was certainly time that someone spoke to her about her long career as an artist. Here, Chris Ironside, a Toronto-based photographer who recently collaborated with Lake on the photographic series Family Values, which was featured during 2010’s CONTACT Photography Festival, talks with Lake about her almost 40 years of art-making.
Chris Ironside: I keep hearing about a Suzy Lake renaissance, but it is not like you have been away – you have been here all along, making work. Why do you think there is such an overwhelming interest in your work now, especially your early work? What has changed?
Suzy Lake: I think that I am lucky. I think that it is timing. There are things about my work, as I was going through my career, that are certainly part of really important periods that are now being resurrected. There is a rekindled interest in what feminism really was, and what Conceptual Art really was because, in both of them, there were major assumptions of what those aesthetics were. The thing is, conceptual work got more airplay. There wasn’t a champion behind feminism the way there was with the New York market that got behind conceptual work. I am lucky that time period is being re-evaluated. The plurality that really existed back then is being unearthed and seen as a vital part of the language that was being developed and used by younger artists.
The second thing, in terms of talking about plurality, my work probably was a little more perceptual in terms of an emotive stance. Relative to conceptual work, my work did have a political analysis, and it did come from a voice that expressed urgency that was kind of out of the mainstream. In terms of feminism, I wasn’t part of the Judy Chicago group of ball-breaking women that was assumed to be feminist. As for being included in a lot of the recently mounted feminist shows, I know that I am a feminist, but I can see that my politics originated in human rights issues, civil rights, the FLQ in Quebec and race issues in the States, which is a little more typical of feminism in the east than in California. So, I was slightly off the radar in terms of what people were looking at with regards to feminism. As well, there was a real materiality in my work. I always liked making things, and if you actually are entrenched with ideas that strongly, you have to figure out how to say those ideas so that someone else can hear them. I felt that my materials could do that and, if carefully orchestrated, could become content or attitude that would develop a conceptual narrative or position in the piece. All of that made my work a little bit different than what was being promoted at the time.
CI: With regard to your early work, I’m curious to know about the time in which it was made. It seems like such an exciting time.
SL: I was trained as a painter and print-maker. The best way for my ideas to be visualized was to record them. I actually did a 16-mm film and edited it before I picked up a still camera. In Montreal in the late 1960s, the excitement for us as a group of young artists was we were thinking about things whether it was critical of the art world or critical of the social structure we were dealing with. There was the Vietnam War and it wasn’t long after the Cold War and all that conservatism. In Canada, we had Pierre Trudeau coming into office, which was quite progressive after such a repressive conservative period, and we were so excited when we found others who were making, or thinking about making, work the way we did. Toronto, on the other hand, is really hard to move into. However, when I moved here in 1978, the photographic community was quite open. Early on, I was invited into a group, known as the Toronto Photographers’ Co-Op (now TPW). We would meet at Michael Mitchell’s old studio to discuss photography. Those evenings at Michael’s were absolutely wonderful. From that group, I realized more about the photographic tradition itself in terms of the image and more of what photography had to offer technically. The excitement was because we wanted to know more; there wasn’t enough around for us to be satiated. So, when my students say things like “I don’t have a place to show” or “I don’t have a group to be with” – make it. Form the group yourself. If there is a problem, figure out what the solution can be. At the time, for us, it was just really natural that those things would happen because something was missing and we wanted something more. It was exciting.
CI: With the recent and continued attention on your career – inclusion in exhibitions such as WACK!, The Pictures Generation and Beautiful Fictions at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) – what do you feel are the pivotal works, the works you really want to be remembered for?
SL: Are we referring to the works in those exhibitions, specifically?
CI: I am talking about everything! The work you produced in the 1970s is currently receiving a lot of attention – the video work, the transformations. But, is that the work you want to be remembered for?
SL: That might be the work that is remembered because of the period. As people re-look at that period now, they’re seeing more of its pertinence than in the context of its time. I have been enjoying the rereading of the work because, 40 years later, people are reading it the way I made it, in terms of form and content. What is interesting to me is that the few places I have shown outside of Canada, where they don’t really know my history, is that I am getting such a positive reaction to recent work without that knowledge of my early work. But, when I show recent work in Canada, there is always a qualifier that goes back to the portrait work. I think those images are familiar enough that people aren’t reading them fresh. It’s like Bob Dylan not wanting to sing the songs the crowd always asks for during the encore. But, I love those works and you asked the question what works I want to be remembered for, and I am just thrilled if I am remembered.
CI: You will definitely be remembered! The works that I enjoy so much are the images of the peonies from Beauty at a Proper Distance (2002) and My Friends Told Me I Carried Too Many Stones (1994-95), which are quieter works/moments; works that are self-reflective, but still speak to a larger whole – society’s fascination with youth and with aging.
SL: It is interesting that your favourite pieces really align with a show that Matt Brower and Carla Garnett are curating for an exhibition at the University of Toronto Art Centre. They always felt the poetic work of mine hasn’t had the attention it should have had, even going back to earlier days, and I love that. The quieter works, such as those you mention, tend to follow work that is more urgent or aggressive. With those more aggressive works I was overwhelmed with asking questions about certain things and how they worked. So, it is true that throughout my history the work tends to go through an aggressive period and then a more poetic period because I am trying to find out something. Following the answers gleaned from doing the more aggressive pieces, I know what that is in the next body of work. I am trying to visualize that with what I have learned, and how it feels or what the experience is like. Separate from the work I want to be remembered for, the work that I learned the most from are my favourites. Are You Talking to Me? (1978-79) is really important. Aside from the intent of the piece, what really makes the work is the sequencing and the rhythm, which is an aesthetic that has always been an interest in my work: timing, pacing and duration - a carry-over from film, performance and video. That piece haunts me. When I did Rhythm of a True Space (2008) at the AGO, those same strategies of using rhythm, movement, pacing and duration to sequence those images came forward. Another piece that haunts me is the Choreographed Puppets (1976) – the position of being suspended at the moment when you don’t have a voice; the gut reaction to still try and protect yourself and survive has come up in the more aggressive work. Works come back to haunt me; those are my favourites.
CI: I remember seeing Are You Talking to Me? at Museum London in the mid-90s when I was a student, and that same poetry and lyrical quality that I find present in the quieter works is in the aggressive works as well – the images of you knocking down the wall with the sledgehammer – the aggression is present, but the poetry is also there.
SL: My work isn’t intended to be aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. Therefore, without those extra things that you are reading as the poetic elements, the work is read frontally and a lot of people did read it frontally. However, if they respond to a lot of those things you are talking about, then they realize that there is a much bigger picture behind what I am presenting. It is not just anger; it is questioning and it is trying to work through what that dilemma is.
CI: I want to go back to your thoughts on showing outside of Canada and the familiarity with your work. You immigrated to Montreal from Detroit in 1968, have you thought about how things might have been different had you stayed in the States?
CI: I’m sure you could have been on the cover of Artforum or Art in America…
SL: I think every artist is anxious to know how far they could have gone if whatever the impediments in their career may have been weren’t there. If I had stayed in Detroit, I would have never been on a magazine cover. I would have probably been airbrushing cars with my training. It is not a healthy thing to go there, but we all go there. I chose to stay in Canada. I still have a passport, so I could have gone back. But, I chose to stay.
CI: So many artists regard you as an influence. Early-70s photographic works such as On Stage, Co-Ed Magazine, Miss Chatelaine and the transformation series had a big impact on emerging artists of that generation, including Cindy Sherman who cites you as an influence. Who are your influences?
SL: You kind of learn from everywhere. It’s like being a thief in the middle of the night…‘Oh, wow that could help here, and that could help there’. I think that in my early days, since there weren’t archetypes of feminism or archetypes that were interested in the same things I was interested in, I was looking at a lot of the post-minimalist work that came out of the Judson Theatre Group. Things like how Philip Glass’s music worked to become inside your body or Yvonne Rainer’s work that had a narrative without being a storyline narrative. There are tons and tons of influences.
CI: Today, there is a whole new generation discovering your work – many of whom you have taught and who consider you as an influence, myself being one of them. Having you as a professor at the University of Guelph was wonderful. It was an awakening for me – you gave me this permission to play and, in doing so, you opened up this world that I didn’t know existed. Can you tell me about your teaching experience and how it has informed your art and vice versa?
SL: In terms of teaching, you indicated that I allowed you to play in class; I think encouraging students to play is in the ‘set-up’. I loved ‘performing’ possibilities of technical applications and ideas. This animation shifts the onus of ‘making art’ to curiosity, which may alleviate expectations of what ‘art should look like’. But, the thing is, I know damn well that you are very aware of the fact that once you saw what you had when you were playing, you were responsible for it. That is what art work is about; you are thinking about things that may be uninformed, and a lot of times the work is trying to speak to you. Then, you have to put yourself in a position to know what that is to resolve it.
With regards to my own practice, it is maquettes, being open, doing tests and trying things that are a more directive form of playing. In the teaching, written comments and group critiques start to provide a language so that if the art work becomes the mother tongue, you become able to translate your own work into words with some kind of discipline. And, when you are going back and forth between the two languages you can see what the problem is in the work. In teaching and in art-making there is a work/play discipline process that is so important. If that is done with integrity, the artwork is going to be clear. When I teach, just like when I make work, it is not about making an art object; it is about going through the process to see the idea visualized.
CI: What’s next? You have a lot coming up.
SL: I do. I am in a lot of very interesting group shows these days. Some of my early work is included in the TRAFFIC: Conceptual Art in Canada show, which will be touring across the country. I am going to be in a show about aging at Brooklyn’s A.I.R. Gallery that is being curated by Martha Wilson. Matthew Hyland is including Are You Talking To Me? in his feminist show, Un-home-ly, in December, and I will be opening a big survey show at the University of Toronto Art Centre in May, 2011. The latter will include the poetic work that we have talked about along with two new bodies of work. I am also in negotiations for a major retrospective at the AGO. My timing for retirement is lucky. I taught for 40 years exactly, and early retirement was possible. I thought I was going to be a dilettante – work in the garden, fix up my house – but, I haven’t had time. But you know what? Life has always been interesting – always been interesting. How lucky is that?
Chris Ironside is a Toronto-based artist who works primarily in photography and drawing. He is interested in representations of masculine ideals and identity through performance, documentation and the staged image. His latest body of work, Mr. Long Weekend, was exhibited during the 2010 CONTACT Photography Festival at Toronto’s O’Connor Gallery. Chris is a recipient of an OAAG Award for Education, and currently teaches photography in the School of Fine Art and Music (SOFAM) at the University of Guelph.