John Armstrong

Eliza Griffiths Karate Girls and Protégés
Mercer Union, Toronto

In a handwritten statement pinned to the gallery’s entrance wall, Ottawa artist Eliza Griffiths discusses her “girls’” dilemma: adolescent women know they are trivialized by cosmetic products such as L♥ves Baby Soft™ — but still want to have them. Griffiths’s teens and their conflicting desires are portrayed in eleven paintings and twenty-six drawings that move through such sites of coming-of-age as reading Playboy, dressing-up, going on group dates, taking self-defence classes, or simply being seen in public. With candour and painterly economy, Griffiths defines a sexual terrain for her subjects that parallels the targeted investigations of painters Richard Atilla Lucacs (gay skinheads) and Eli Langer (children): all three had their first Toronto solo exhibitions at Mercer Union.

Griffiths’s young protagonists wear their sexuality like a badge  and here the artist’s devotion to detail would do the 19th century's dedication to material description proud. Although the girls are immodestly attired in virtual uniforms of either half-open karate robes or hot pants and junior tees (through which their nipples all magically appear with the persistence of the Sacred Heart), Griffiths’s careful description of the fashion clothing’s tartan or striped jersey fabrics, leopard skin shoulder bags, barrettes, dental braces, squeezed pimples, scrapes, hickeys, mascara, tattoos… and a catalogue of sitcom coiffure, define a hard-won individuality within what might otherwise be caricature.

The question of to whom these girls are addressing their sexual energy is presented in an array of conscious and unconscious gestures: parted lips, fidgeting hands and studied body language. In Another Perfect Day (1997), two girls standing at the bottom of a suburban driveway avoid eye contact by either staring off into the distance and confidently fixing a point well above eye level or by nervously scanning the ground. In Penthouse Suite (1997), one girl lies on a shag carpet propped up by her elbows and reading a soft-porn magazine that she holds in front of another girl who, sitting cross-legged beside her, only has eyes for her friend.

When boys do appear with the girls, they act as lovestruck, bashful, or nervous foils: as in Greenbelt Frolic (1995), one of the earliest paintings in the exhibition, which describes (in beguilingly-innocent William Kurelek delivery) four participants’ decidedly gender-based comfort zones around nudity during a plein air booze-up. Given the psychological acuity of Griffiths’s group portraits, the four single-figure Karate Girls (1996-97) paintings seem a tad overweening in their strident karate-position posturing and reductive argumentation: one “girl” has love and hate written across her clenched fists.

From the faux-innocence of Griffiths’s 1995 painting style, she moved into the bravura execution of her most recent works. Her figures are realized in calligraphic contour lines that separate spare backgrounds from the figures’ own equally sketchy interior forms: all this frugality serves to support the attention she lavishes on facial expression. In the exhibition’s brochure, curator John Massier rightly sees Griffiths’s teenagers as stridently shopping for identity in the marketplace of pop culture. But there is fusty art historical precedent at work in Griffiths's architecture of glances and stares, building the complex figural compositions that explicate narrative space from Piero della Francesca to Edgar Degas.

“Eliza Griffiths.” C International Contemporary Art, 57 February 1998 - March 1998