What better way to inaugurate Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center's fabulous new gallery in the Church than work that makes visible the fluidity of identity?
As an artist-run organization, Hallwalls has always been in possession of a continually shifting identity itself. The incredible variety of its programs and the breadth of vision of its visiting artists has kept the place in a state of chronic regeneration, like some kind of multilimbed creature that keeps growing unexpected new appendages.
The latest identity shift is a monumental one in physical terms. Hallwalls' collaboration with Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records -- the entity that bought and so beautifully restored the former Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church -- has given the arts organization a space like none other in Hallwalls' 30-plus year history. Ingeniously designed and smartly appointed, the new gallery offers crisp, contemporary spaces (made variable by means of movable walls) that are enhanced by a contrasting and blissfully old-world mood of the surrounding and very handsome Gothic revival church.
The work on these shining new walls is by Suzy Lake, an American-born artist who moved from her Detroit home to Canada in 1968 in response to the Vietnam War. Now living and working in Toronto, Lake is widely revered in her adopted country for photo-based work that forcefully engages a subject that might be flippantly labeled "Woman Among the Patriarchs."
Maybe, given the mix of brash humor and intrepid self-projection of the work, "fluidity of identity" isn't strong enough a phrase. "Mutability" might be the better word. With the exception of "Choreographed Puppets (Who Pulls the Strings?)" and "Canadian/Border Idol," the photographs are staged photographic self-portraits depicting fictional characters caught up in one or the other of our culture's rich store of female stereotypes or boxed in by their own false self-perceptions.
Though a glance around this stately installation -- the show was selected and hung by visual arts curator John Massier -- may not reveal it, the work is remarkably varied in temper. Early work like the series "Co-Ed Magazine" has a kind of patent theatricality that can't help but conjure up Cindy Sherman's dress-up tactics from the same period. But Sherman never sought the implacable deportment of the slide series "On Stage," in which a willowy Lake, exhibiting exquisite fashion model features, barely allows a shiver of irony to disrupt the seamless impersonation and graceful photography.
The recent work, like the parodies from the "Forever Young" series (2000) featuring one "Suzy Spice," boldly incorporates age into this tragic-comedy of gender. Decked out in a leopard outfit topped by a see-through plastic halter and harem-gauze midriff, Lake assumes the role of a young pop star at a time of life when uncooperative flesh is anything but young-pop-starlike.
The comedy of these images (one is signed with celebrity flourish) obscures the audaciousness of this wrinkles-and-all self-depiction. If "Suzy Spice" as a stripper in a bar owned by Ciccolina (Italian ex-porn star and ex-wife of Jeff Koons) doesn't do it, the unfunny "Pluck No. 1" -- a close-up of Lake plucking her gray facial hair -- will drive home the artist's brave candor.
As Massier points out in the show's essay, "Choreographed Puppets" (a fascinating if somewhat distressing image of male manipulation) has a double edge. One side exposes "notions of victimization" while the other creates an assertive self-image that cuts through its conceptual opposite. "Who pulls the strings?" Massier asks. "Suzy pulls her own strings," is his answer. This dominating persona runs through all the work.
"Canadian/Border Idol" is a surprise because, for once, Lake turns her camera on others. In this case it's "contestants" on a Canadian version of "American Idol." (There is an actual "Canadian Idol," and earlier Lake had photographed actual contestants.) Here she uses local artists, curators, a young ballerina, even the outgoing Hallwalls board president.
WHAT: "Photographs by Suzy Lake"
WHEN: Through Feb. 18
WHERE: Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Ave.
INFO: 854-1694 or www.hallwalls.org