Suzy Lake; Georgia Scherman Projects; So Whose Gaze Is It Now?; Something, Nothing, Everything; Beauty At A Proper Distance/In Song; Imitations of Myself; Matilda Aslizadeh; Pari Nadimi Gallery; Kerry Tribe; the Power Plant;Amanda Nedham; LE Gallery; Donna Szoke & Ricarda McDonald; CRAM Gallery; 'vanitas' paintings; self-portraiture; photo self-portraits; performance art; photo-captures; galleries; exhibitions; visual art;
Suzy Lake at Georgia Scherman Projects
Until May 26, 133 Tecumseth St., Toronto; georgiascherman.com
The end of April brings two things: summer dreams of road trips, picnics and romance, and an unwieldy horde of hungry-for-fame graduating art students. Good luck, kids! Here's your serving apron.
In the interests of higher learning, however, it behooves me (and, yes, I am well-hoofed, in all senses) to tell the next generation of artists, especially those working in performance, photography, self-portraiture or any high-grade combination thereof, that, if you don't know already, it's all been done before. Don't believe me? Let me introduce you to Suzy Lake, national treasure.
So Whose Gaze Is It Now? – a mini-survey of Lake's vast output from the early 1970s until today (including works recently modified and/or reprinted) – on display at Georgia Scherman Projects, is a primer on the limitless possibilities of the self/other/self dynamic as it plays out in photography and its cousin arts.
All that the art world is now obsessed with is present in this survey: the questionable reliability of self-depiction; the psychological tensions embedded in performance art (and its subsidiaries, such as photo-captures); and the endlessly refractive power of documentation – that lifeless-yet-fecund species of highly specific (because it marks a time, place and action) but always open-ended (because no text can be trusted) art presentation. Present and just as fresh as it was 40 years ago.
There is much to learn from Lake, and not solely when and how our current art fixations began. Without the didactic materials, an innocent could walk in and be forgiven for thinking this show contained all new works. Lake's power comes from the fact that even at her most questioning, her positioning and re-positioning has maintained a steel-like spine of assured confidence that makes her "unreliable narrator" actions (and acting) all the more compelling. And this is true even of her earliest periods of exploration and playfulness, the eras wherein she openly presented her work as a series of possibilities, not fixed statements. Is there anything better than watching an artist at play who knows all the rules?
Looking at Lake's early self-portraits today, we see not only the emergence of a future powerhouse (chronological readings of art leave me uneasy, but sometimes you have to acknowledge that art, like science, is a grown enterprise, with foremothers), but are also reminded of how beautiful, at times chillingly so, Lake's early work was – theoretical and art historical readings aside.
Take, for instance, the series Something, Nothing, Everything – a long chain of photo self-portraits from 1978. In the series, Lake, dressed in the same shirt and photographed before a peeling wall, employs a range of subtly shifting but unnerving facial gestures. They collectively form a narrative wherein the subject appears both preoccupied, perhaps even neurotically so, while also glamorously engaged in an act of seduction, as if conversing, flirting with and of course challenging the viewer, at whom she stares, directly and indirectly.
In the three-image series Beauty At A Proper Distance/In Song (from 2002 and 2012), we see only Lake's lipstick-painted mouth, open in song (or awaiting a kiss?), photographed from the right side of her face, the left and full frontal. In this work, Lake is retrofitting, decades later, her own first maddeningly, intentionally uncertain acts of self-presentation – but she has erased the full face she once presented, reduced her photographable persona to a mouth, half a nose, a chin.
Like the culture itself, Lake's on-paper self has become particlized, metonymic; it embraces the hyper-brevity of an age when people choose to represent themselves as only partially present, via avatars or via the partial body shots typical of sex/dating hook-up sites (don't pretend you don't know what I mean).
As Lake's practice aptly reflects, acts of self-portraiture, such as your old family snaps, acts that once carried elaborately costumed narratives (see Lake's Imitations of Myself (1973/2012), also on display), now take milliseconds to create, and need only a stretch of skin. The more and faster ways we find to cast our image(s) into the world, perversely, the less of our actual selves, our bodies moving in time and through space, we care to offer.
So Whose Gaze Is It Now? ought to be mandatory viewing for art students and the public (because we are all self-portraitists now, aren't we? Thank you, Facebook), if for no other reason than for people to learn both how we have arrived at this fraught juncture in our projected identities and how, if you're going to engage in dramatizing your life on film, to do it with style and calculation.
Matilda Aslizadeh at Pari Nadimi Gallery
Until May 26, 254 Niagara St., Toronto; parinadimigallery.com
Matilda Aslizadeh's new solo exhibition at Pari Nadimi Gallery asks us to consider the beauty of rotten fruit and fading flowers – and, surprisingly, it's not hard to see the attraction.
Working with a digitally generated (and animated) video and accompanying photographs, Aslizadeh creates a familiar tableau, that found in 17th-century Dutch so-called "vanitas" paintings. You know the setting – a table full of ripe fruit, augmented by a skull, or some hungry bugs.
But Aslizadeh is making more than a tribute piece. Her video asks us first to consider the well-set table … and then watch it go to hell. A papaya pops open, gushing black seeds. A peach curdles, then implodes. A blushing bouquet begins to kneel forward, then shrivels. NSFL (not safe for lunchtime).
Viewed (if you wish) in tandem with the abundance of life energy on display in Lake's show, Aslizadeh's work is an unquiet reminder that the big clock, the invisible one hanging over your head, is always ticking.
In other venues
Kerry Tribe at the Power Plant
Until June 3, 231 Queens Quay W., Toronto; thepowerplant.org
Arriving already stale-dated, L.A.-based Tribe's lacklustre film installations don't deserve the Big Museum Treatment. If we must have derivative, intellectually flat exhibitions at the Plant, can't we at least keep it in the family and give the money to a Canadian?
Amanda Nedham at LE Gallery
Until Sunday, 1183 Dundas St. W., Toronto; le-gallery.ca
Everything I said about Nedham's wunderkind status two years ago now goes double. She's a raging force, a marvel, a new constellation. And can she draw! Call me Nostradamus.
Donna Szoke & Ricarda McDonald at CRAM Gallery
Until May 22, 24 James St., St. Catharines, Ont.; craminternational.ca
Do you get the feeling you are being watched? You are, by two artists no less. Szoke & McDonald take over the tiny CRAM space with a pair of all-seeing, motion-activated eyes; creepy blue-tinted orbs that follow even your tiniest steps. Given the micro-size of the gallery, the show is not recommended for agoraphobics or devotees of George Orwell.