25th Trillium Award

Special Feature! AGO Curator Georgiana Uhlyarik on Introducing Suzy Lake

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You may not have heard of artist Suzy Lake, but chances are you've heard of a lot of her fans. In honour of the Art Gallery of Ontario's new exhibit on Lake, Black Dog Publishing and the AGO have created a beautiful coffee table book featuring the artist's biography and work, with essays from the likes of Rookie Magazine founder Tavi Gevinson, founding director of the Art Canada Institute/Institut de l?art du Canada Sara Angel and AGO CEO Matthew Teitelbaum. Introducing Suzy Lake (Black Dog Publishing) is a stunning complement to a rare and powerful exhibit.

We had the chance to speak with Associate Curator and the editor of Introducing Suzy Lake, Georgiana Uhlyarik, about the creation of the exhibit and the book, and about the unique experience of working with Lake, an artist's artist and one of Canada's most innovative and fearless creators. Georgiana tells Open Book about how Lake's experience with Quebec politics impacted the artist, how Lake explores identity as theme and her own personal favourite piece of Lake's work.

All images appear courtesy of the AGO

Grace O'Connell for Open Book:

What first drew you to Lake's work?

Georgiana Uhlyarik:

Well it feels right now like I've always known it, although I do remember that I came across it for the first time when I was in university and I think that for me it looked like nothing else that I seen before. I had studied Canadian historical art when I was at U of T and then by the time I got to York to do my graduate work, I realised that there was a whole other way of thinking about art and Suzy was one of the first artist whose work that I saw — even though I saw it in reproduction — that really made me realise that.


That must have been exciting


It was great. I remember, I think it was in 2007, when we were beginning to work on our transformation project here at the AGO, and I was introduced to Barbara Astman who wanted to do a project with us and then I ended up working with Barbara, and I had known her work, actually, oddly enough, through Coach House, a very circuitous route. And Barbara said "I would be really interested in looking at Suzy Lake and Lisa Steele and Joyce Wieland".

And so I got to call Suzy Lake on the phone and I remember it was one of those moments where I was sitting in my office and I talked to Suzy and then I hung up the phone and thought "Oh my God, I just spoke to Suzy Lake". So I'm a little bit of a fan. It's been really amazing to be able to get to know her as an artist, but also her as a person, to do this in tandem. She is one of the most generous people that I know. It has been amazing and life changing to work with her.


There was a long period of time in the 1980s and 1990s where Lake's image did not appear in her work. Why do you think that is?


Well the way that I understand it is that artists, and especially an artist like Suzy, learns from herself, and she's also someone who competes mostly with herself. I think that when she begins a new body of work, she always has a question and the way that she has figured out a way to answer those questions is through an experimentation both of the material and process and strategies and so on. And for a really long time the constant she was looking for was her own figure, she is interested in the self, not in herself. And she had come to a place where she felt she had pushed that as far as she could and she needed to kind of pull back into her own research and go back deeper into her roots.

So she went back to social activism and political involvement and kind of being much more a part the group, and a facilitator, rather than a kind of figure that stood for the individual in society. And I think she needed this decade in order to be able to reconnect with that initial spark that she had, that kind of social activist part of her psyche that was formed in Detroit. She went to Nicaragua and she did a lot of political work for parties, and then also worked very closely with First Nations up in Temagami, she got to know the band very well. And worked with the chiefs in order to raise awareness about logging in Temagami.


You have some high profile contributors to Introducing Suzy Lake. Did you find a lot of people eager to speak about Lake's work?


Absolutely. As a matter of fact, there's kind of this — I don't know, it's not secret, perhaps it's no longer secret — group of amazing admirers of her work, and this was an opportunity for them to come together and realise how many of them there are. It was an amazing experience at the opening how many other artists came to me and talked about how Suzy changed their life or what an impact Suzy had made in their work or in their personal life and how rewarding it was for them to see her being recognised this way.

It was actually very moving. She's such a generous, generous, both artist and person, and I think that really come across in her work, that there's a kind of generosity because there is an invitation to question the world together. It's not an aggressive confrontation, on the contrary, even though a lot of the work may appear to be very bold or even violent — when she is smashing down walls and she has hair growing out and there are people who have a lot of difficulty looking at that work — but I think at the core of it is a real generosity and optimism. She really believes that an individual really can make a difference, and I think that's where the work comes from and I think people recognise that. People were very eager to write about her. I was very pleased at how many different perspectives they had. Everyone was Introducing Suzy Lake. Including herself, throughout the book she was introducing herself by appearing at different stages throughout her life.


Tell me about the title. Why Introducing for an artist so established?


So it's funny because it took her a little while to get used to it. There's a cheekiness to it, she's very funny and her work can be quite humorous in that full of humanity way. I think it works on that level, I think it works on the level that a lot of people don't know her work and this is going to be their first introduction — she never really had a show at this scale, of her full career — but for us, the core of her work has to do with performance and in particular the performance of the self and the way in which the self keeps navigating and introducing and reintroducing itself as it navigates societal forces. So there's that kind of performance of the self that is at the core of her work. And this ongoing act of introducing herself, introducing this idea of Suzy Lake again and again over her career. We wanted to point to that and work with that. The decade you were speaking about earlier is actually missing from the exhibition for that reason, because the exhibition deals specifically with this idea of the self, the performance of the self, as it navigates the political, gendered forces at play.


What influence do you feel Lake's move to Canada had on her work? Do you feel things would have gone differently if she had moved to New York (as she intended) instead of Toronto, from Montreal? Do you see her as a Canadian artist or an American artist?


Sometimes these definitions, they don't really offer all that much, right? As in they are not always useful ways to think about it. But I think in Suzy Lake's case in particular, and when you think about the wider circle of people like Barbara Astman and Lisa Steele, both of whom had the same transition, they were born, raised, and their consciousness was sort of formed in the United States and then they moved either to Toronto or Montreal, and I think in terms of history it speaks of a very important moment, where people felt in the United States felt that there were many ways to protest and one of them was to actually become an expat in Canada.

So that speaks more about the historical moment. But in Suzy's case, it allowed her, in Montreal, as she says — she knew who she wasn't, and she had to figure out who she was. I think that Canada allowed her, and especially Montreal, to figure that out. Being displaced — I myself was not born in Canada, I was born in Romania and came to Canada when I was thirteen — so that kind of always being both on the inside and the outside, offers you a kind of perspective and awareness of how identity is formed and created.

And I think because Suzy ended up in Montreal as an expat American, she actually had a different perspective than Anglophone artists in Montreal, because there is such a divide between French and English in Montreal, but she was allowed to have this very fluid move back and forth. She was Guido Molinari's assistant, she taught at Concordia — she was already placed in a situation where she had to negotiation where she had to negotiate all sorts of identities and communities and in that process, I think she began to figure out who she was. I think that's what Montreal offered her ultimately, in terms of artistic development.


That's so interesting, in the context of an artist who is so focused on identity.


Yes, and I think that the politics of French Quebec, which are all about identity, would have amplified that, taken that to a really taut pitch. There was no way to ignore these questions, these really, really fundamental questions: who are we? Where do we belong? You know, that's why, for some time, she didn't think of her work as feminist or gendered, because she was coming at it from that perspective of, well, number one, conceptual strategies but number two, this idea of identity politics. That's what she talks about, identity politics, which were really at the core of Quebec cultural at the time (and obviously, ongoing).


Do you have a favourite piece or series?


Ah! Well, I have sentimental ones. In terms of the exhibiton, I have to say, the first decision we made, that we knew one hundred percent we had to do, was we had to bring together "Are You Talking to Me?" It really is the first time the entire work has been present. She showed 61 components in 1979. They haven't been seen together since then, but she actually created 88. So this is the way she always meant it to be seen. It's a favourite of mine because we wanted to be able to see it but also because we wanted to make it happen for Suzy in a way that she always had imagined.

But my sentimental favourite one would have to be "Extended Breathing" in the Detroit Rivera frescos, in the Rivera Court. That's because I was able to be there and watch her perform, so when I look at that and I remember her standing there for an hour as people moved in and out, I really felt that that was when I began to understand what her work was really about. And for her to go back to the place where it all began for her — you know, her grandfather used to take her to that place and that's what she understood, that there is this possibility of being an artist in the world, this is the idealism that it can provoke and evoke.

I also just think it is beautiful — you can look at it and just see endless, endless things in it, it's a conversation between artists, it's a conversation across time, it's a conversation between painting and photography, performance and photography. It just has it all.

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