Feature: Suzy Lake

Suzy Lake

chromogenic print, 1/3, artist proof 1 of 2; 2008
Collection of Gallery Stratford
Gift of the Artist

In the early seventies Suzy Lake, alongside other leading artists of the time, would come to mark the conditions and aims of postmodern art in North America.  With this initial phase of postmodernism came a strong and necessary articulation of feminist ideals. Today, Lake continues to incorporate these concerns in her work, bridging the gap between critical theory, social activism and fine art.

During the late sixties and early seventies, the first discernable phase of feminism in the arts, women artists had worked to reclaim the sexual body as to cultivate an assumed, collective identity. Soon after, in accordance with the rise and subsequent dissemination of poststructuralist critical theory, many artists would begin to depart from any such fixed, conditional notions of identity. What places Lake’s work in relation to postmodernism, then, is her resolute interest in undermining gender roles and troubling traditional representational practices.

With REDUCED PERFORMING, Lake would undergo a full body scan for seven minutes. While lying on a large flat-bed scanner, a censored camera captured the detail of even the slightest of her movements. The final product leaves us with an image that conveys both certain tangible stillness and ordered vitality. The photograph is hardly a traditionally stylized, portrait; we receive, instead, a life-sized, modestly dressed Lake on a white background.

Here, Lake challenges the cultural tendency to promote and often celebrate a certain kind femininity – one that is passive, accommodating and ultimately inferior. The gaze is now reversed, with Lake herself confronting the viewer, not as a docile object of desire, but as a fully formed, active subject. The fact that Lake places herself in most of her work allows for a deeper investigation on these themes. Her body, then, becomes the site where meaning is produced.

REDUCED PERFORMING, in many ways, troubles the notion of portraiture itself.  We are not to assume that Lake is merely representing herself as she sees best, rather, she plays with the conditions of representation, asking us to look further into the photographic process. We are not offered the real Suzy Lake, but a representation of her. With this in mind, Lake intentionally blurs the authenticity of the photograph as a document of reality. During the late 20th century, the mass cultural conditions of visual experience had been inverted. The mass media would constitute a visual field in which we no longer experience the world through reality, but through an imitation of it. The represented thus becomes the real, leaving a world full of imitations with no actual referents. It is here that Lake suggests that even after seven minutes of exposure to the camera, the self portrait ultimately remains a representation, a performance of reality.

The work also speaks to the use of new strategies of photography and digital art. More so than ever before, the materials one brings to a work of art constitute its overall meaning and message. In Reduced Performing, the photographic process itself becomes a point of interest. Such a reflexivity back onto the medium is evident in much of Lake’s work, most notably in her A GENUINE SIMULATION OF... and ARE YOU TALKING TO ME? series.

The impact of Lake’s work continues to be felt internationally. She has, alongside other critical figures in the development of postmodern feminist art, paved the way for many of today’s leading artists, including Nicole Jolicoeur, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie and Kiki Smith. In 2011 Gallery Stratford was proud to present a Suzy Lake exhibition that would bring together a number of her works alongside REDUCED PERFORMING. The acquisition of this photograph marks Gallery Stratford’s commitment to maintain a diverse collection of both historical and contemporary art.