Final Major Project: Considering Others – Suzy Lake, Portraits As An Issue Of Identity
“Lake’s social consciousness is rooted in her predisposition to be curious and to pose questions in order to open up an examination of the power dynamics at play within an individual and between the individual and society.”
– (Lake et al. 2017: 9)
Throughout the MA, I have been interested in the performance that we put on for the camera. We do not show who we are and we play the part of who we think we should be. That statement is indeed true for me. While researching for my final project, I came across the work of Suzy Lake.
I identify strongly with her work and especially with the strong narrative that tells of our struggle between true identity and the roles that we play in society. She uses makeup and role-playing as a mask to hide behind. These metaphorical masks allow her to conceal who she is and without them to reveal who she is. Her storyboard format strengthens the narrative, drawing the viewer into the story.
In figures 1 and 2, Lake’s use of the white makeup to cover her face gives a blank canvas before she applies makeup to make the character she is going to play. This mask hides who she really is.
Figure 1: Suzy Lake. 1973-2012. Imitations of Myself #1 111.1 x 107.9 cm
Figure 2: Lake. 1973. Imitation of Myself #2 (detail)
Suzy Lake was one of the first female artists to use photography, performance, and video to explore issues of identity. Her work is often compared to that of Cindy Sherman. However, it is not mentioned that Sherman was heavily influenced by Lake. In figures 3 and 4 that influence can be seen. Sherman’s gridded 1975 image ‘Untitled #479′ (figure 4) was clearly influenced by Lake’s gridded 1973-1974 image ‘A Genuine Simulation of…’.
Both of these pieces of work use self-portraits to tell a narrative of the transformation of the individual from the unmade-up face to a face covered with excessive makeup. Both narratives are concerned with our obsession with beauty and appearance.
Lake’s work has almost been overshadowed by the work of the more famous Sherman. It was almost impossible to find a copy of ‘A Genuine Simulation of…’ anywhere on the internet. Instead, I have included a photograph of the plate presented in the book of her work ‘Suzy Lake’. I find Lake’s work more subtle and less dark than Sherman’s.
Figure 3: Suzy Lake. 1973-1974. A Genuine Simulation Of…
Figure 4: Cindy Sherman. 1975. Untitled #479.
Lake’s ‘A Genuine Simulation of…’ consists of 90 photographs in a series, presented as a grid of 10 images across and 9 rows of images. Each image is subtly different to the one before it. Lake applied more and more makeup for each image. Lake is playing herself but also playing no-one in particular. This is where the strength of the images lie. In some images, she is almost clown-like, and in others she is glamorous.
Of all the images I have considered in planning my project, this is one of the most influential. Questioning the role that makeup plays in our lives online and in person, is intriguing to me. Do we need to wear makeup to be accepted? Am I considered differently because I do not wear makeup? But there is more to this work and my interest than that. The use of makeup to transform appearance leads to questions about the truth and authenticity of a photograph. Lake’s images depict a woman who through the use of makeup is not the actual women. It is a representation of women, but not one woman in particular. She further emphasises this with the unfinished title. Who is the work a genuine simulation of? We are not answered, so as viewers we can relate to the images in terms of our personal understanding and experience.
Also, there are contradictions in the title. Genuine and simulation have opposite meanings. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the meanings of the words are:
Genuine – “Truly what something is said to be; authentic.” – (genuine | Definition of genuine in English by Oxford Dictionaries 2018)
Simulation – “The action of pretending; deception.” – (simulation | Definition of simulation in English by Oxford Dictionaries 2018)
Lake is leading the viewer to question whether or not there is an authentic image of herself in the work. We also question whether or not any photograph that we see can be considered a genuine representation of the person or scene. Or are all photographs simulations?
Figures 5 and 6 show more of Lake’s transformations. Some are through the use of props, and in others, she alters the photograph with a pen after the event.
Figure 5: Suzy Lake. 1973 – 1996. Miss Chatelaine 50.5 x 40.7 cm
Figure 6: Suzy Lake. 1973-2012. Suzy Lake as Francoise Sullivan. 72″ x 82 1/4″
Figure 7: Suzy Lake as Francoise Sullivan, Introducing Suzy Lake, AGO, Toronto, 2014
Lake’s work also offers me guidance on the scale of the work that could I could present. This is something that I need to consider when planning my exhibition.
As much as I hate the idea, her work supports my current thinking that to explore the issues I would like to, my project is turning into a self-portrait project. The project is not about me: it is about nobody and everybody, I just happen to be the model.
“I don’t try to say what my identity is. I’m not some heroine recounting my life. I needed a constant, a vulnerable subject for a reference point. The reason I use myself as a model is because I’m always on hand, always around.”
– Lake (Lake et al. 2017: 170)
genuine | Definition of genuine in English by Oxford Dictionaries. 2018. Oxford Dictionaries | English [online]. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/genuine [accessed 1 March 2018].
Lake, S., Anderson, S., Uhlyarik, G., and Reckitt, H. 2017. Suzy Lake. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl.
simulation | Definition of simulation in English by Oxford Dictionaries. 2018. Oxford Dictionaries | English [online]. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/simulation [accessed 1 March 2018].
Suzy Lake – Suzy Lake. 2018. Suzy Lake [online]. Available at: http://www.suzylake.ca/ [accessed 1 March 2018].
Figures 1 and 5: Suzy Lake – White Face. 2018. Suzy Lake [online]. Available at: http://www.suzylake.ca/whiteface#1 [accessed 1 March 2018].
Figures 2 and 3: Lake, S., Anderson, S., Uhlyarik, G., and Reckitt, H. 2017. Suzy Lake. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl.
Figure 4: Suzy Lake vs. Cindy Sherman: Americanism and the Forgotten Canadian Feminist Art of the ’70s. 2018. Sites.utm.utoronto.ca [online]. Available at: http://sites.utm.utoronto.ca/historyinternships/blog/11282016-0157/suzy-lake-vs-cindy-sherman-americanism-and-feminist-art-70s [accessed 1 March 2018].
Figures 6 and 7: Suzy Lake – Transformations. 2018. Suzy Lake [online]. Available at: http://www.suzylake.ca/transformations#1 [accessed 1 March 2018].