New York

Suzy Lake, Choreogrpahed Puppet #4, 1976/2007, C-print, 41 5⁄8 × 44 1⁄2".

Suzy Lake, Choreogrpahed Puppet #4, 1976/2007, C-print, 41 5⁄8 × 44 1⁄2".

Suzy Lake

Arsenal Contemporary Art | New York

One of the first things Suzy Lake did after moving to Montreal in 1968 from her native Detroit—a city whose fiery upheavals had recently jolted her into political consciousness—was enroll in mime school at the Théâtre de Quat’Sous. Miming proved a formative education for Lake, who learned to manage both the dramas of various personae and, one supposes, the constraints of muteness inherent in a photographic subject. Crucially, the course also tutored her in the eradicative powers of whiteface, adopted throughout her practice as a “point of nothing.” From there, she embarked on her conceptually driven, camera-based output, which for nearly five decades has undone the rudiments of identity and representation via her most prevailing, multifarious subject: herself and, by extension, selfhood—its ductility and confinements, its clinging mystiques.

Visitors to “Performance of Protest,” Lake’s survey at Arsenal Contemporary Art, were greeted by Imitations of Myself #2, 1973/2013, a grid of two dozen photos that capture her applying maquillage over a foundation of white greasepaint. Like several of her early inquisitions into the masquerades of femininity, that project was shelved soon after completion, only to be revisited and exhibited decades later, at which point the prescience of its examination of gender-as-construct could be better discerned. (In 1975, a similar series by Lake made an impression on a young Cindy Sherman.) On Stage, 1972–74/2006, is the first photographic piece in which the artist performed before a camera, and was inspired by a secretarial stint she did for her adman uncle and his misogynistic colleagues. It features campy black-and-white shots of Lake modeling assorted outfits and striking cinematic poses intended to evert the patriarchal gaze. ARE OUR “SELF”-PROJECTIONS AN ACT OF CONCEALMENT? OR ARE THEY REVEALINGS OF TRUE SELF? asks one of several texts interspersed between the imagery. Peers, misinterpreting or uncomfortable with Lake’s self-centeredness—with her role as beholder and muse—accused her of narcissism. The gallery’s astute choice to screen On Stage in a back room and as a video slideshow (it was conceived for a more ideal, if unfeasible, carousel projector), emphasized the seemingly clandestine influence of the radical endeavor as well as the sequential impulse underlying the artist’s oeuvre.

By the mid-1970s, Lake had intensified the performativity of her work and placed her chosen medium under sharper, more ambivalent scrutiny. For the photographic series “Choreographed Puppet,” 1976, she suspended herself from a crude wooden structure to become a marionette. Manipulated from either side by two male puppeteers, her body becomes an anonymized blur. The “ImPositions” series, 1977/2016, depicts the artist standing upright and squirming, bound by rope. The pictures’ warped edges are the result of Lake placing the negatives over a candle flame and stretching them. Such portrayals appear compelled by the inherent aggression of the camera itself, and by Lake querying the distinctions between subject and subjection, victimhood and vulnerability—her concerns are shared by many lens-based artists, such as Sanja Ivekovic´ and Francesca Woodman, whose careers took off during the feminist second wave. What distinguishes Lake’s approach is the subtlety of its theatrics, its sense of so-called identity work as rigorous play.

Lake helped to establish Quebec as an international stronghold of conceptual practices, as did her cofounding of the artist-run space Véhicule Art Inc. (She moved to Toronto in 1978, and has lived there since.) Her immense legacy has only recently been properly recognized—with a 2014–15 retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario and with inclusions in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2007. Astonishingly, “Performance of Protest” marked Lake’s first solo show in New York. Although the presentation mostly skimped on later work, it did display two entries from a 2019 photographic sequence in which the artist, posing on a massive, shattered chessboard, cosplays as the iconic Lewis chessmen, whose Romanesque pieces are distinguished by their cryptic, zany miens. She appears in these images as both pawns and queen (figures who, it feels worth mentioning, once shared lowest maneuverability on the board). The latter holds a hand to her cheek in a gesture of alarm—or is it recognition? Or both? The result is a perfect expression for an artist who has consistently illuminated how the quandary of remaining forever unknowable to oneself may be reclaimed, in all its complication, as freedom.