11 September 1997 - 1 November 1997
Opening Reception 11 September 1997 8pm
Karate Girls and Proteges
In popular culture today, the characters of teenage girls are kicking ass like never before. Vampire slayers, tankgirls, batgirls, teenage witches – these over-the-top roles play to a contemporary audience hungry for action while also serving as an articulation of individual identity. Characterized by self-reliance and personal exploration, these roles define an aggression which speaks not simply of power, but also of a source of energy which propels this development of the self.
Ottawa-based artist Eliza Griffiths has tapped the vein of this subject with her series of painted portraits of teenage girls in which this sense of aggression, though implied, remains slightly submerged and her Karate Girls series in which this aggression, though explicit, remains controlled and determined. Together, they mark an effort at recognition, an assertion of individual identity within a contemporary environment which has rarely provided young women with a strong voice with which to speak.
The only male character in evidence here is found in the painting Judo Hold, encased in the firm grip of a barebreasted karate girl, a small line of blood trickling from his mouth. However, the work evokes more intimacy than aggression. The characters’ faces are calm and untroubled, their gazes locked together as though an understanding were coming to pass. Despite his hapless position, the man gives no hint of tension or concern. And while she clearly will not be pushed around, the woman gives no send of “kicking ass” for its own sake. Judo, after all, is a practice comprised of reactive gestures. If there is resignation here, it is tempered with tenderness.
The dominance of Griffiths’ female characters as painted subjects is sharpened by the featureless environments they inhabit: the white suggestion of a cityscape, green grass, blue skies, a peach pastel bedroom wall. The lushness of these backgrounds enhances the flat, slightly cartoonish appearances of these subjects, rendering them iconographic images, emblematic distillations of experience. Typical of this distillation of a work called Penthouse Suite. Two teenage girls lounge on a blue carpet perusing a couple of “Playtoy” magazines. The artist has stated that numerous adult women viewing this work have recalled similar experiences from their lives, viewing the pornographic magazines hidden by their fathers of brothers. The work is not only emblematic of a particular rite of passage, but illustrates the complex layers of reading which Griffiths’ representations demand.
The girl on the left lies on her stomach in a classic Lolita pose, ankle-socked feet bent back towards her body. She reaches across for the open magazine with an expression of either moderate interest or studied teenage apathy. One notices her toes, curled deliriously to the ceiling, the lines along the balls of her feel accentuating a subtle sense of tension or excitement. One also notices that the girl on the right, sitting cross-legged, looks at neither magazine. Rather, she glances surreptitiously at her friend. Perhaps too ambiguous to suggest a lesbian relationship, the glance is nonetheless filled with curiosity and longing.
There is both a subtlety and directness here that is indicative of much of Griffiths’ work. While the emotional level of the painting is oblique and evasive – much like teen sexuality, full of questioning and uncertainty – Griffiths is confident about the coquettish element she chooses to present. Both girls are outfitted in tights and halter tops. And, like those curled toes, both girls’ nipples are erect. The visible cues of a burgeoning sexuality are blended with a questioning about the meaning and direction of sexual identity as it begins to develop.
While the works exhibited here are presented from the context of specific series, the characters within are less “of a kind” and more “of themselves.” Despite their commonalities, no two are quite the same. Whether it is the embryonic consciousness of self manifest in the postures of teenage girls or the more realized awareness in the stance of the karate girls, Griffiths manages to depict them as recognizably-distinct individuals. They may share the confidence of tankgirls and vampire slayers, but unlike the supergirls of popular films, their only real aggression is a metaphorical push to create sufficient space within which to emerge.