Eliza Grifiths' Protégés: These Bad Girls Are Not Bad Girls

The artist examines an in-depth truth about the teenager's conflict with self-image and societal pressures.

ART, 05/11/98: REVIEW The generation known as "The Babyboomers" has dominated our culture since it's giant bulk first appeared following the festivities at the conclusion of the second world war. When the Boomers were kids, they created the comic book industry. As they reached their teens they made rock n' roll youth culture rule the world. Now the boomers are getting old and their interests lie in security and insularity. The boomers just want to settle in and relive the glory days of their youth, and what they remember is Beaver Cleaver clean; soda fountains and first crushes.

Thirty-one year old Ottawa based painter Eliza Griffiths however, wants to remind us of a grimmer side of growing up. In her recent series, Karate Girls and Protégés, Griffiths remembers teenagehood as a time fraught with fear and awkwardness. Her paintings are about girls awakening to their newly developed sexuality and the problems of dealing with the status assigned them as they become sexual icons. Griffiths' paintings are about the conflicts that arise within a teenage girl as she awakens to the duality of her subject (personal)/ object (sexual) nature.

At first glance the paintings in the Karate Girls and Protégés series appear to be full of light and joy; the colors are so luscious as to be almost electric. The young girls depicted in the works, with their ponytails and brightly colored clothes, appear to be the very essence of youth- so much so that Griffiths has painted a sort of white halo or aura around them, endowing them with a vibrancy and vitality that lifts them out of their environment into the supernatural.

The otherworldliness and freedom of the girls is further emphasized by their surroundings; domestic suburban landscapes that have been reduced to fuzzy, airy near abstractions in bright ultra-pastel colors. In Girls Griffiths goes as far as reducing the skyline of buildings behind the two girls to a single white band. These girls clearly dominate the landscape. Most of the paintings feature two girls paired off together; often positioned very close together. This creates a feeling of intense closeness and sorority between the girls.

This surface reading of the works quickly falls apart under closer inspection, revealing an almost unbearable ugliness. The first clues to the true unspoken horror of these paintings appear as I began to notice these girls emerging sexuality; hickeys and other traces of sexual activity cover the girls' flesh, the girls clutch teen magazines featuring "crushworthy boys" and coy titles like "jetboy." In the painting Penthouse Suite, the girls go so far as to turn to men's pornography (no doubt pilfered from a father or brother's secret stash) to fulfill their sexual curiosity.

The outfits the girls wear are ultra tight and revealing, accentuating the girls emerging sexuality. Most alarmingly, in many cases the girls clothes are so tight as to create the displeasing effect known as "camel toe"(occurring when a women wears pants so tight that they wedge up her vagina, creating a cleft in the groin), and in all the paintings, the girls nipples are clearly visible and quite erect. Often they appear to be painted right over top of the girls shirts. Next, I notice traces of violence; scrapes and bruises are visible on the girls' faces, arms, bellies and legs. The girls' postures are confrontational, hands on hips. Many of the girls stare challengingly out of the painting at the viewer.

As this information begins to pile up, the girls no longer seem as charming (charmed?); they begin to seem awkward and crude, more human. Zits, braces and other imperfections become evident. Their brightly colored clothing, which at first seemed almost glamorous, begin to reveal itself as trashy and ill fitting rather then sexy.

The whole painting becomes undermined, inverted to the point where the colors, formerly full of glee and energy, begin to appear garish and bawdy, transforming the light of youth into the titillation of pornography. In crafting this reversal of perception, Eliza Griffiths achieves a powerful tension that involves both the paintings themselves as well as their subjects in a conflict between the pleasant surface and nasty essence. thrown into turmoil, I was forced to simultaneously love and hate everything about the paintings. From their colors, both exuberant and repugnant, to the girls themselves, who are simultaneously dear and nasty.

These are not happy girls. At this point it becomes quite apparent to me that these are not impenetrable goddesses of youth, but confused children unable to decipher their new identity in a body that in not yet their own. These paintings then, are not about the innocence of youth, or about sexual awakening. They are about a young woman's struggle with the female cultural sex icon.

In one of several sketchbook drawings strewn around the walls of the gallery, Eliza Griffiths characterizes the confusion present during a girls search for sexual identity when she writes:

"When I was what they call a "pre-teen" I wanted to be a teenager more then anything else in the world. There was this teen girl product 'L©ves Baby Soft' which was perfume and cosmetic stuff for aspiring pretty, popular teen girl. What kind of name is 'L©ves Baby Soft' for a young near woman. Talk about infuriating (?) Still... I and my friends coveted it."

This product is promoted as the scent of the aspiring "pretty, popular teen girl" at the same time as being trapped up with images of childhood (I.e. the name "Baby Soft".) This is exactly the dichotomy these girls must straddle in order to become a woman.

In fact, in this series, a lot of the struggle is centered around outside influences. The girls are frequently clutching teen magazines, smoking cigarettes and in the case of ready for love allowing a filmstrip to literally enter their heads. Of course, the girls are also always accompanied by their best friend- all these represent external pressure and influence on a girl to assimilate the identity of youth culture in place of personal identity; to move away from being oneself towards becoming the culture.

While these girls appear to be accepting the trappings of their culture and, through them, exploiting their sexuality, it appears to come with a large degree of discomfort; the girls' shoulders are frequently slouched, they hold there cigarettes away from themselves, there is extreme tension in the manner in which they grip there teen magazines. These girls look either uncomfortable or aggressive. They are self conscious and would like either to disappear, or have everyone else in the world vanish.

These girls are, however, eager to learn about and to utilize their newfound sexual powers. In Penthouse Suite, two girls are looking through a "play toy" (think- playboy) for guidance/inspiration on how to utilize their sex for seduction. But the girls do not seem altogether pleased. The girl on the left side of the painting is firmly grasping the porno mag, but on her face is a look of half revulsion, half disdain- her friend on the other hand isn't even looking at the magazine, but is instead looking longingly at the other girls body. In Another Perfect Day, the two girls are dressed to kill, they are leaving their house, probably headed for the mall or other youth hangout; they are on the prowl, and they aim to seduce the boys. Both girls seem to be feeling awkward about how their dressed; the leftmost girl reacts by acting apathetic and impatient, while the girl on the right seems to feel downright foolish- her shoulders are slouched and her eyes are downcast. Her shirt says "Go Grrl!" but neither looks like they feel as sexy as they would hope they look.

This dichotomy of subjective/objective identity is further emphasized by Griffiths' treatment of her rendering of the girls. By careful application of glazes to render the modulations of tone and hue of the girls, outlining the major forms and facial features in dark, near-black line, Griffiths has managed to create a sense of almost classical naturalism and comic book style abstraction in the same figure. This enables her to both give the girls a very distinct and individuated personality while at the same time imposing an iconographic sameness to them-as if these lusciously rendered figures have been forced to fit into the same cartoon outline. The subtleties of the girls have, in a sense been forced into crude, abstracted outlines like their individual personalities are being forced into rigid frameworks of youth culture and sexuality.

In her series Karate girls and Proteges, Eliza Griffiths confidently deals with the issue of a young girls' coming to grips with her sexual awakening by creating a series of negations within the imagery as well as the painting itself. These conflicts are so primary, that more often than not they involve individual elements with themselves; the sensation of color versus itself, the "moral" grounding of the subject, the sexiness/sexlessness of the girls are all strong examples of this ontological conflict. This all out battle going on between the painting and itself, results finally in a perfect balance.


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