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Suzy Lake: Transformer… and winner of a 2016 Governor General’s Award

Think of some of the best known, most celebrated contemporary Canadian artists. Chances are they have been recognized with a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.

These prestigious awards are the Canada Council’s – and the country’s – most important prize for the visual and media arts. Since 1999, over 128 extraordinary men and women have been honoured with this award for their contributions to Canada’s rich arts scene.

The 2016 laureates have just been announced and they include Edward Burtynsky, Marnie Fleming, Philip Hoffman, Jane Kidd, Wanda Koop, Suzy Lake, Mark Lewis and William (Bill) Vazan. The Canada Council Art Bank has been acquiring excellent works by award-winning Canadian artists for decades, so it’s no surprise that almost all of the award-winning artists of 2016 are represented in the collection. Incredibly, one work in the collection, Suzy Lake as Bill Vazan (1974), conjures up images of two of this year’s laureates in one go! In a grid of six larger-than-life portraits, Lake takes on Vazan’s facial features, including his bushy mustache, in composite images that are the result of gradual photographic manipulation.

Suzy Lake as Bill VazanSuzy Lake as Bill Vazan (1974) by Suzy Lake

Artists are known to be prescient, but when Lake made this work, she could never have predicted that she and Vazan would both receive a Governor General’s Award 42 years into the future. The two of them were among a group of artists who founded the artist-run centre Véhicule Art in the early 1970s. Lake immigrated from her hometown of Detroit to Montréal with her husband in 1968 to get away from the city’s social unrest and to avoid his conscription into the Vietnam War. She soon found herself heavily involved in Montréal’s experimental art scene. Suzy Lake as Bill Vazan is part of the Transformations series, comprising nine similar sequences that together provide a collective portrait of Lake’s milieu at the time. In each sequence, she takes on the features of friends, including men, women, and even a child, that she said had taught her something. Others in the series (who incidentally also have works in the Art Bank) include Françoise Sullivan, now an Officer of the Order of Canada, and Gilles Gheerbrant, the gallerist who originally showed Lake’s work.

The Transformations series was inspired by Lake’s realization that she had picked up the speech mannerisms of a male co-worker she admired. She was exploring notions of role-playing and identity at a time of social and political change, and photography was another vehicle where, chameleon-like, she could adopt the mannerisms and likenesses of other people. Creating this work well in advance of Photoshop, she stenciled out and registered features from two different negatives and exposed them in the darkroom. Although the content of the series was not exclusively feminist, its import was. Speaking about the series when her work was exhibited at the Santa Monica Museum in 2007, Lake asked, “If women were looking for a different voice, were we conforming to an established voice to say something new?” Groundbreaking in its mixture of conceptual art practices with identity and social politics, Lake’s work has inspired and influenced artists such as Cindy Sherman who would later explore similar territory.

In a career that has spanned over four decades, Lake continues to produce forward-looking art that engages with identity while embracing new forms of expression. Inclusion in exhibitions such as WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution and major retrospectives of her own work have underscored the significant role that she has played, and reveal that she has consistently retained an inquisitive and provocative attitude. In a recent interview in Canadian Art, Lake expressed hope that her early work still serves as an alert against patriarchal influence. Elsewhere in the Art Bank collection, Lake mimics the (then) upstart actor Robert de Niro when she asks the confrontational question, Are You Talking to Me? (1979).

Are You Talking to Me?

Are You Talking to Me? (1979) by Suzy Lake (detail)

View the video portrait of Suzy Lake, created by director Cliff Caines (commissioned by the Canada Council for the Arts).

View a selection of works by the 2016 laureates in the Art Bank collection.

About the Author: Michael Davidge

Michael Davidge is an artist, writer, and independent curator who lives in Ottawa, Ontario. He received an M.A. in English Literature from Concordia University in Montreal and an M.F.A. in Visual Arts from Western University in London, Ontario. He has been involved with artist-run culture for many years and is interested in alternative publishing practices as a form of art history. His writing has appeared online and in numerous Canadian art magazines and exhibition catalogues.

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