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When Everything Old is New Again: Suzy Lake at Hallwalls

The artist in her Toronto studio last summer.
(photo: John Massier)

Suzy Lake’s fun and enticing exhibition of photographic works is the perfect opener for Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center’s new space. Like a young woman with everything ahead of her, Lake’s art work displays an optimism and a delight with her own body, and with the worlds she travels through behind the camera.

Visual Arts Curator John Massier introduces Lake’s work in his catalog essay sounding like an adolescent girl mooning over the latest boy band. His description makes sense though, as Lake has made a career out of playing dress-up and continues to challenge the world around her with the energy, some of the personality, and all of the enthusiasm of a 14-year-old girl:

“…I received an unsolicited submission of slides. Postmarked Toronto, the return address indicated “S. Lake” and I did a double-take. It seemed unlikely than anyone other than Suzy Lake would have that moniker, though it seemed equally unlikely (crazy, even) that Suzy Lake would be sending me a submission.”

Lake is a contemporary of Cindy Sherman, who in fact invited Lake to exhibit in an early Hallwalls exhibit in 1975. They both use themselves as the photographic model and both investigate identities through photography, but while Sherman always dons a disguise, making use of heavy costuming, Lake is always herself in her artworks. So, the tie to Hallwalls’ early days, and to Buffalo’s art world darling, Cindy Sherman, as well as Lake’s continuing devotion to the avant-garde, made her the obvious choice for the opening exhibition of the new space. Everything old is new again.

Suzy Lake’s heaviest disguise in the Hallwalls exhibit is in the earliest work shown, from the “Co-Ed” series created in 1973 and reprinted in 1998. Photographic montages—essentially collages that were rephotographed—show Lake in whiteface, done to the point where she actually looks like a mannequin. The artist clipped images of hairdos from fashion magazine and pasted them to her “doll self” in order to transform into various personalities. All the while, her delight in the project shines through these works, a twinkle in her eye and a smirk on her face.

“On Stage” is a body of work Lake created over many years. Originally presented as slides, the 80 images have been transferred to DVD, with a score of the slide projector sound, for this exhibit. In this work Lake is on the street, in cafés—anywhere you might find a fashion plate. Again, the artist has been photographed in various guises in the provocative image of fashion and film, but she is always herself. Her hair is never quite totally over the top and the clothing is never entirely extreme. She is playing and pretending and delighting us with her own fanciful personality.

When I spoke with Lake last week, as the finishing touches were being made on the exhibit, she reminded me that in the 1970s, Color Field Painting was popular. Lake, along with Cindy Sherman and fellow performance/ photography artists Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneeman forged a new world in activist, feminist art. They were building an audience. She told the story of artist run spaces in Montreal which, like Hallwalls, were putting together exhibits that were unlike what could be seen at the mainstay spaces in New York City. She said, “we were literally calling everyone we knew, hours before an opening, hoping to have an audience.” There’s no question today that these artists and their contemporaries changed the direction of art, making way for post modernism.

The series “Choreographed Puppets” is a beautiful description of power struggle, underlined with the question, “who pulls the strings?” A petite woman who can’t weigh more than 110 pounds and who stands about 5’3” tall, Lake built a puppet stage and strung herself up on it. The strings, controlled by two men on top of the stage, move her feet and arms. Lake pulls against the strings, and is caught in the five black and white photographs, swinging about the space. Captured at one-thirtieth of a second, her body becomes calligraphic gestures describing struggle (she was in physical pain after the two-day project), but also describing the strength and grace of the artist’s body.

Lake is a child of the Vietnam War era, and “Choreographed Puppets,” as with all of her work, challenges authority. However, she explained to me that she values responsibility in the fight for autonomy. These photographs illustrate most clearly the role of the individual in controlling their own destiny and the individual’s effect on society. The images create a balance between beauty and struggle.

For this exhibit, Lake continued a project she began in Canada, a riff on the “American Idol” television program. The artist photographed and videoed acquaintances and students, and visited Buffalo to capture some of our locals. This display of contestant photographs, called “Canadian/Border Idol” and complete with a “star filter” lens to catch the twinkle in the eye of the aspiring performers, allows visitors to vote for the next “Border Idol.” While the exhibit is up, votes will be tallied and new “winners” will move to the next round of competition. This is a fun way for Lake to play with the consuming nature of audience participation and the fascination with fame-focused television programs.

Printed 30 years later at life size, 2000’s “Forever Young” series shows the artist with just as much energy and fervor for her work. She dresses up as “Suzy Spice” in leopard print spandex and platform shoes, and grabs the microphone. The poses are familiar in the lexicon of rock and roll promotion. The difference here is there is no airbrushing, no plastic surgery, the hair isn’t perfect, and the model (the artist) is not twenty years old. Not that she’s out of shape, but she certainly is not what you would find on any concert tour poster. Nonetheless, the three images shown at Hallwalls are a lot of fun, they seem to say “Rock out!” as you enter the space, in an “in your face” way. Lake’s work is the perfect statement for a new beginning for an avant-garde art center that is always tugging at the edges of the Establishment. The exhibition remains on view through February 18..