A Pearl District apartment might not seem the most obvious place to get in touch with your punk-rock roots, or to dive back into art exhibition. But for venerable local visual artist, curator and media personality Eva Lake—who previously has led many lives, including as a punk rock singer, an Emmy award-winning makeup artist, as well as an art writer and radio host—a self-curated show of collages at her home in March was a chance to exhibit on her own terms.
“I’m not represented by a gallery in Portland right now, and I had nothing on the books,” says Lake, who was long represented by the local Augen Gallery, and maintains representation with New York’s Frosch & Co. gallery as well as San Francisco’s Modernism. “So I decided to put something on the books: to make something happen. I mean, that’s what punks did.”
Back in the early eighties Lake was the lead singer of Portland punk band The Kinetics. But she was a visual artist first, having studied art history at the University of Oregon in the late seventies and, a decade later, painting at the Art Students League in New York. Lake retains a kind of outsider’s mindset, having no MFA degree, having for years made her living by other means, and as a blonde woman artist having been often objectified instead of seeing her unmistakable talent remain the focus. Yet her lived experience, in a host of world capitols and across artforms and disciplines, is a kind of artistic act unto itself. Which is maybe why an apartment show felt natural enough—it brought her back to the band days.
“I asked myself, ‘When was I happy as an artist? When was I in control?’ Looking back at my diaries, I realized it was the punk era, when I first started. No one wanted to print my art, so I made a fanzine,” she says at the Pearl apartment, recalling the early days. Today, some of Lake’s seventies fanzines are included in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection of artist books. “I’m very much like, ‘Don’t wait for people to come to you,” Lake adds. “So I just thought, ‘I’m going to go back to that. I’m going to shake that tree.’”
Where Lake now lives, looking out at the Wieden + Kennedy building in the Pearl, also represents a landing of sorts. The artist recently gave up her downtown apartment of seven years, which had made her a witness to the ongoing protests and civil unrest of 2020, during which time Lake was also physically attacked.
Many of the new collages exhibited at her apartment show are from the Witness series, depicting combinations of architecture and women in duress. One collage, for example, “The Witness No. 16 (The Blitz),” imposes a photo of a bombed-out London building taken during the Blitz of World War Two over a magazine-cover portrait of a woman. “It’s kind of a self-portrait,” Lake says.
Though her collages often possess a humorous side—another recent work, from her Some Girls series called “Some Girls No. 16 (The Waves and the Waves)” isolates a grid of JFK-era women’s bouffant hairdos against backgrounds of ocean waves—the artist is, by her own description, working through trauma. Yet she’s also become productive, and during my recent visit, a few days after the apartment show, Lake was eager not only to share a variety of new works but also to trace simple pairings of bodies, architecture and landscape to art to the beginning of her career.
Big Cities, Punk Rock, Dirt Roads
Lake’s childhood years comprise two distinct chapters. She was born in Los Angeles in 1956 and spent her first five years living in its diverse Inglewood area. “My L.A. looks like Perry Mason,” she says, referring to the long-running TV mystery show, “except there were not very many African Americans on Perry Mason, and living in Inglewood, my best friends were a Latino and a Black girl.” Despite her youth, Lake adds, “I remember the racism.”
Then her family moved to rural southern Oregon near Medford: a dirt lane called Dark Hollow Road that, despite its ominous name, gave Lake “an idyllic childhood,” she recalls. “In the summer I only came home to eat. I didn’t wear shoes for like four months.” Yet it wasn’t culturally isolating, either. Lake’s mother co-owned an art gallery, while her father ran an antique store.
After high school, Lake enrolled at UO in Eugene eager to become an artist, “but I dropped out to join the punk thing,” she says. She went to England to briefly work for the York Archaeological Trust in Yorkshire, taking time out to explore London’s punk-rock scene. She spent an even shorter time in Paris as a nanny. Lake then moved to Portland and for two years beginning in 1979 became frontwoman for a series of bands, first The Kinetics, and later Anesthesia and Drum Bunny. Lake was part of an emerging punk scene that included legendary acts like The Wipers (a major Kurt Cobain influence) as well as beloved bands like Sado-Nation, Pell Mell, Hari Kari and the Ziplocs, Bop Zombies, Rancid Vat, and the city’s first all-female punk act, Neo Boys. It also provided exposure to visual art and collage. In 1981, her band Drum Bunny with former Kinetics bandmate Bill Mscichowski was included on a compilation produced by Wipers frontman Greg Sage called Trap Sampler, the cover of which (designed by Msichowski) was included in the 1999 book The Album Cover Art Of Punk.
Even as a punk singer, Lake was making art, exploring photomontage as well as drawing and painting. She was exhibited for the first time in a Portland group show back in 1980. When she moved a few years later to San Francisco, leaving behind band life, Lake focused more intently on her exhibition career with a series of shows at galleries like Eye, Martin-Weber and Café American. That’s also where she first developed a long interest in architecture as a subject, including a series of colorful, almost Mondrian-like drawings depicting buildings in near-abstraction.
Fashion, Makeup, Math
In 1986, Lake moved to New York City, where she continued her studies at the Art Students League but ultimately moved away from exhibiting. In New York she became immersed in an entirely different world: fashion. Working for Bergdorf Goodman, Chanel and Ferragamo, she was surprised to be compensated far better than any artist she knew. Eventually Lake became a longtime makeup artist, and even was part of a daytime Emmy award-winning team for her work on the PBS children’s show Square One Television: a segment called Mathnet, a pastiche of TV show Dragnet in which mathematicians solve crimes and mysteries.
“It was tons of 16-hour days,” she recalls of the years as a makeup artist. “But there was a connection. All my work is in some way about regarding beauty. I would not probably make art like I do today if I had not spent all that time making thousands of women beautiful.”
Painting and Hosting
In 1997, Lake moved back to Portland and delved into art-making and exhibiting again, with solo shows at the Duckler Gallery and the local American Institute of Architects chapter. Those shows, called “Chairs” and “Bridges,” showed a continuing interest and design. Lake recalls author Katherine Dunn buying a painting of the St. Johns Bridge from the AIA show. The artist also briefly operated her own gallery, Lovelake.
In the 2000s, she began another long-running endeavor, radio, first hosting Art Star on KPSU and then KBOO’s Art Focus over a 12-year period. Still feeling like an outsider, she remembers thinking, “’I will make you talk to me.’” She also began painting, and exhibited regularly at Augen Gallery: a series of minimalist abstractions with dynamically alternating contrasting colors. Especially in larger installations like 2007’s “The Richter Scale” at Augen, the works felt almost like experiential art, meant to dazzle your optic nerve even while maintaining a sense of minimalist order.
Lake continued painting into the early 2010s, exemplified by a series of works created at Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts in 2011 with an Agnes Martin-like array of imperfect stripes, yet with vivid, almost psychedelic shades of yellow and pink bursting through.
“Marriages” and Targets
Before the end of the 2000s, while she was still painting, Lake had already been exploring collage. Influenced by British collage artists like John Stezaker and Linder Sterling, each of whom made simple juxtapositions or “marriages” between just two or three images, she began with a series of montages placing cutout magazine images of Donald Judd sculptures floating over landscapes: mountain ranges, lakes. Appropriating such an iconic artist’s works was a playful act of rebellion with a feminist twist.
“I’d had this Donald Judd magazine since the 80s. I knew I’d have fun with this,” Lake recalls. “It was really about just entertaining myself. I’m bringing him down a bit. I’m feminizing him a bit and making him a little bit less serious and in a humorous, kind and sweet way.”
The Judd collages eventually were exhibited in New York in 2012, years after they were made. That’s after they were rejected by Augen. Lake says gallerist Bob Kochs told her in the late 2000s that she was a painter now, and that’s how she should be known. “I said, ‘But it’s already been done,’” Lake recalls. “I collaged before I ever painted. I mean, I showed collages in 1980.’”
Her collage series, Targets, became a breakthrough in 2008, displaying her growing flair for arrestingly simple photo juxtapositions. Targets also moved Lake into what has become a hallmark of her work: depictions of women and deconstructions of how women have been portrayed (or not portrayed) throughout history. From Liza Minelli to Tina Turner to Susan Hayward, Lake’s Targets collages found a way to simultaneously honor and deconstruct our infatuation with female icons. When Augen hesitated to show them, she arranged a 2009 solo show at Portland Community College’s Helzer Gallery. That, she says, convinced Bob Kochs to stage a similar show later that same year. The works immediately landed with local critics and sold the most in her career.
“In a month with some serious talent on display, Eva Lake’s Targets show at Augen Gallery easily speaks the strongest,” wrote Jeff Jahn on the visual arts website PORT. “It possesses a clear, personal voice that can only come from hard-won experience and self-knowledge, melding Robert Indiana-style Pop constructions and Richard Hamilton collage with the power/fragility of Hollywood’s glamour factory. Rather than mere pop-mongering or simple Hollywood fetishism, Targets feels like the product of a long relationship between fashion, art, glamour and the perils and use of power of being in the public eye… not unlike Lake herself.”
“This is a woman whom most people in the scene have a strong opinion about, and they should,” Jahn added, “because she’s good.”
As the decade progressed, Lake created new photomontage juxtapositions, such as the Anonymous Women series, exhibited at Oakland’s Some Walls gallery in 2012 and at Augen Gallery in 2014. Lake showed only women’s eyes, lips and hair, and as Willamette Week critic Richard Speer noted, her background as a makeup artist infused the works with a sense of ambiguity. “She invites viewers to be simultaneously appalled and charmed by historical representations of the feminine,” Speer wrote, “a trope that, deconstructed as it has been, still manages to remain mysterious.”
At the end of the decade, Lake had two more successful series. One paired images of ancient Egyptian or Indian sculpture with those of the mid-century modern woman, culminating with the show “Her Highness” at Modernism in San Francisco in 2017. Then, Lake began fusing her ongoing use of female imagery with her interest in architecture, in what would become the Witness series, in works like 2019’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache, No. 29” (featured in a New York Times article about buying at art fairs).
It’s been two and a half years since Lake was attacked in broad daylight on Halloween in 2020, near her then-apartment at Southwest Third Avenue and Jefferson Street downtown. Her building was also subject to attempted arson during this period of social protest, she recalls. As the protests and related civil unrest extended over months into the fall, keeping her awake night after night, Lake decided she’d had enough of living near City Hall and the Justice Center. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was unsafe,” she says.
Today, Lake questions the positive impact of the demonstrations; or at the very least, she wants acknowledged the physical toll it took on an already pandemic-decimated downtown. She also admits that many of her friends disagree, but suggests not everyone saw what happened late at night downtown, when the mood became less of the noble Wall-of-Moms protesting and more about anarchic destruction.
“I heard a protester say, ‘Buildings don’t bleed, people do,’” the artist says. “That pissed me off. I thought about the Reichstag. I thought about the World Trade. I’m trying to look at Portland and say, ‘What did we gain? What happened?’ And so far, I see no gain. I see loss. I see a lot of loss.”
At the same time, the still-thriving if less diverse Pearl District, with its higher percentage of residential buildings compared to offices, has given Lake not only a soft landing but also rejuvenation: a chance to respond to the scar tissue creatively.
Eva Lake, “Witness 2” (left) and “Witness 32.” Images courtesy of the artist.
Her Witness series, for example, pairing anatomical and architectural imagery, includes some of the strongest collages of Lake’s career. The initial works, like the aforementioned collage with the London Blitz photo, obscured women’s faces with either destroyed or iconic architecture, such as the Empire State Building (“Witness No. 2”). Other pieces, like “Witness No. 32” and “Witness No. 58,” insert women’s faces into skylines, at times creating either a Blade Runner-like melding of image and architectural façade, or a more playful, dancer-like marriage of anatomy and building.
Whatever angst these works possess or were birthed by, they’re also full of humor. “You can tell that I have fun in my work. Sometimes people see my work and they laugh. And this is not a bad thing,” she says. “I’m here to engage myself and shock myself and laugh a little bit, yes.”
Too Big To Ignore
During 2020’s endless tumult of pandemic, protests and wildfires, a lot of cancellations occurred, from the Tokyo Olympic games to my own 30-year high school reunion. For Eva Lake, 2020 year marked the 40th anniversary of her first solo and group shows, respectively: “Photomontage, Etc.” at the Goodman Building in San Francisco and “The Secret Side” at the Northwest Artists Workshop in Portland. But Lake is in no mood to slow down her art career; in fact, she’s more immersed than ever, having given up her longtime day job working at Russo Lee Gallery.
Lake has been exploring larger-scale pieces, as part of her Some Girls series, a focus since 2022: a kind of tongue-in-cheek social commentary that began as an extension of the Witness series, combining women and buildings, but expanded into larger grid-based works. “People asked me all the time, ‘Do you make anything large?’ And I said, ‘I use vintage materials. Nothing’s digital here. It’s all what I found, what I recycle and I remake,” she explains. But by assembling collages into grids, she realized, her work could take on a larger scale.
One such recent grid collage called “Some Girls No. 18 (Spanish Painters)” inserts women’s faces into historic Spanish portraits, all originally of men, taken from a book of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1929 retrospective. “What’s really important is how you mesh in the woman’s face with the portrait, with the painting,” she says. “A lot of it is about understanding photography. I found that a lot of the faces that worked with these were from old ads for menstrual cramps.”
Another work, “Some Girls No. 15 (Face Fragment),” places eyeless women’s faces over the book History of Western Civilization’s maps and texts. But many of the images are of iconic 20th century movie actresses: Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Hutton. Through a kind of localized scrutiny, those famous faces become abstractions. Maybe, Lake hints, that’s been the case all along.
“What I’m asking you to do is look,” the artist says. “That is the point of my work.”