Suzy Lake, Performance of Protest
“Performance as Protest”, an exhibition on view in New York, follows Suzy Lake’s five-decade spanning career, capturing her continued investigation of her own image as a means to probe and resist constructions of gender, identity and beauty. Beginning in the late 1960s, Lake began documenting herself while dealing with the issues that were pressing at the time, such as the female body’s relation to larger social forces, which she continues to tackle with wry scrutiny. The burden of performance, wavering from the idealized to the incapacitated body, has become her major concern.
The exhibition focuses on the current of resistance that connects some of Lake’s best known series. In many cases, this act of protest arrives by ways of the artist’s deft understanding yet brilliant “misuse” of photography, other times resistance is suggested in the confrontation between the viewer and Lake’s own body.
In the 1976 series, “Choreographed Puppets,” for example, Lake is suspended, maneuvered by persons controlling chords tethered to her limbs. The counteractive force between the artist’s body and those who manipulate her movements is mirrored by the inherent tension of the artist restricted by her own performative volition.
Similarly, in “Imitations of a Self” (1973), Lake performs for her camera, applying a thick layer of makeup beginning with white face. The title of the work and the act it represents beckons the question of which version of the artist is being emulated and, as such, where to locate a genuine self within an image-rich, consumerist world.
Forged in Detroit during the civil rights movement of the late 1960s and moving to Canada during the wave of anti-Vietnam draft dodging, Lake’s career is steeped in the image production and politics of her North American context. Her real-world acts of protests, such as her engagement with the civil rights efforts, is picked up thematically in the evocation of power in her work.
In “Pre-Resolution” (1984), the artist tackles the confinement of the photograph’s arena, breaking through this figurative stage with a sledgehammer. This textural sensitivity to production (and destruction) speaks to the artist’s dedication to research, tallying and measuring the world based on her physical engagement with it. Memory and tactility are forefront in the varied representations of the artist as a complex subject in these shifting contexts.