Sorel Cohen, Le rite matinal, 1977, printed 2016, ink jet print, 89.7 x 97.6 cm. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Sorel Cohen / SODRAC (2017)
This spring, three Canadian women artists got together at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) for an informal public conversation in support of the Canadian Photography Institute exhibition Photography in Canada: 1960–2000, now on view in the CPI galleries at the NGC. In a discussion led by exhibition curator Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator of Photography at the NGC, Sorel Cohen, Suzy Lake and Susan McEachern talked about their individual art practices and works, the place of photography in Canadian art, and the changing role of women artists over the past several decades.
The conversation began with Cohen’s Le Rite Matinal (1977), a version of which is on view in Photography in Canada. Taken in Cohen’s bedroom, it is a compelling representation of the inquiries that drive her practice. Cohen noted that it was while she was reading Lucy Lippard’s 1976 publication From the Centre — a collection of feminist essays on women’s art — that she “determined [she] would make work based on [her] experience as a woman.” Le Rite Matinal was the first photograph she produced with this motivation in mind. It documents Cohen making a bed: a banal domestic chore that has traditionally been the responsibility of women.
Other works by Cohen that were discussed, such as An Extended and Continuous Metaphor #19 (1986), reveal her use of photography to explore gender, portraiture, and the social and historical context of the artist.
Suzy Lake, Sixteen Over Twenty-eight, 1975, gelatin silver print, graphite, coloured pencil, 83.7 x 61.9 cm; image: 83.7 x 61.9 cm. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Suzy Lake, a 2016 recipient of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, uses images of her body to explore complex issues of identity, representation, authority, and power relations. During the discussion, Lake mentioned some of the early challenges and dismissals she faced for depicting herself in her work. She explained that her inclusion of this imagery is “not as a biographical reference” as early audiences often assumed, “but as a representation of [a generalized] someone.”
In reference to the work Are You Talking to Me...? #2 detail, (1978–1979), Lake stated that she taught herself “more about what [she] was trying to do technically and aesthetically with this piece than with any other.” Here, Lake physically altered the photographic negatives through heating and stretching, bleaching, and the addition of paint to achieve an effect that powerfully engages viewers. Are You Talking to Me...? and other works included in the conversation revealed theoretical and technical links to Lake’s work, Sixteen Over Twenty-eight (1975), currently on display in Photography in Canada.
Susan McEachern, Part Four: The Outside World from the series On Living at Home, 1986–1987, six chromogenic prints, 40.6 x 50.8 cm each. Gift of the artist, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, 2005. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Susan McEachern uses her practice to explore personal experience, the natural world, and the construction of cultural meaning. The Family in the Context of Childrearing (1983–1984) is an example of a work driven by personal experience and inquiry. McEachern mentioned that she produced this work when she “was thinking about having children. And yet,” she continues, “I was an artist and I found that there were very few examples of women artists who could carry out their careers while also being mothers.”
The single work eventually became a photo-documentary installation, in which McEachern visited, photographed and interviewed a number of families. The images were then paired with texts describing her own family’s history, along with changing theories about family structures and childrearing. During the discussion, McEachern acknowledged that subjects central to her thinking and experience were “not typically topics of art production” at the time.
Similarly, her On Living at Home series (1986–1987) investigates representations of “home,” by cleverly using text and photography to expose gender politics and broader economic and sociopolitical relationships between the ideals of home and the larger world. The fourth and last part of this series, The Outside World, can be viewed in Photography in Canada.
In this wide-ranging conversation, audiences were treated to some pithy comments and fascinating insights into what it means to be a Canadian woman artist today, as well as what it has meant over the past few decades. By pushing the physical boundaries of the medium and using photography to explore unconventional issues surrounding gender, the human body, and feminist politics, Cohen, Lake and McEachern have effectively challenged existing perceptions, and paved the way for the artists who have followed.
Works by Cohen, Lake and McEachern can all be see in Photography in Canada: 1960–2000, on view until September 17, 2017 in the Canadian Photography Institute Galleries of the National Gallery of Canada.
Leanne Gaudet has worked as a curatorial assistant at the National Gallery of Canada and is a graduate of the MA Art History program at Carleton University.
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