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Some Girls Refuse to Lose their Heads f(or) their Hands

Publié le 1 décembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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Some Girls: Griffiths/Simms/Wagschal/Werner, curated by James D. Campbell, is billed as an exhibit which “contributes to a vital dialogue concerning the state of portraiture in contemporary art.1” The tradition of portrait painting has focused on head and shoulders representations of noteworthy individuals. Some Girls is also an exhibit whichcontributes to ongoing feminist discussions: that of the representation of the female body. This dialogue has its own long and contentious his/herstory. As an exhibit featuring portraits of women, Some Girls stretches the boundaries of both portraiture and of the depiction of women and, in so doing, engages in a dialogue surrounding questions of female power and female desire.

Free association
E.Griffiths, Free association
2007 (24″x24″, oil on canvas).
Diffused with the Courtoisy of the Gallery
Mc Clure. All rights reserved.

Some Girls was exhibited at the McClure Gallery, in the Visual Arts Centre in Montreal from September 7th through the 29th, 2007. The group show featured four contemporary Canadian artists. Eliza Griffiths, Lorraine Simms, Marion Wagschal and Janet Werner all took part in the Women and Paint residency at the Banff Centre in 19982. It is appropriate and timely that almost ten years later, these women, all now teaching and practicing art in Montreal, should exhibit their paintings of women.

The paintings in Some Girls exhibit a refusal to reject desire and yet an acknowledgement of the lack of fulfilling roles in which to act out that desire. Whether it is Simms’ fugitives, constantly trying on new personae, Griffiths’ girls-women experimenting with the tropes of bad girl sexiness, Wagschal’s recognition of the pain and isolation present even in the most intimate moments, or Werner’s stilted fashion and pop-based girls, all of these women acknowledge desire – for love, life, sex/iness, strength and agency. They search, despite their acknowledgement of the failure of our society, to provide acceptable roles for women. These girls want to engage in both an intellectual dialogue and the hands-on pleasure of painting.


Griffiths’ work has traveled the trajectory from teen girls grappling with the changes and challenges of becoming women4, through sultry, sexy young womanhood, to a place where her “recent work has elaborated these explorations into issues of social dynamics and functioning, and the need for meaningful experience and connections.5” Griffiths’ invented6 characters are portrayed through numerous repeated techniques–vivid colours, masks, carnivalesque makeup, stylish clothing, and gender mutability. These function to remind the viewer that every presentation of a self is constructed, a masquerade, and an act. No portrait is unmediated, we are always performing.

Griffiths’ figures stand in the gap between cartoon fantasy and a deep representational refinement. The women in Wild in the Country (2007 oil on canvas 68”x48”) inhabit a real physicality despite their over-the-top caraciturization. The weight of a body, those curves where the elastic band pinches the waist, the roundness of it all; Griffiths gets it just right. There is something performative about Wild in the Country; the women are foregrounded, but a consciousness of men, the gaze, sexuality, and the viewer are always on the horizon. The background contains a small silhouette of a man, together with some frolicking bunnies and dogs.

Griffiths explains that her gender definitely influences her work. It is part of her reality. There is a push and pull present in Griffiths’ figures. They exude both aggression and invitation. According to Griffiths this is neither coy nor ironic – but paradoxically honest on both fronts: ‘come here, no, don’t go away!’8 Here, we see the struggle to maintain both power and desire. She argues that we are not yet in a post-feminist world, that her images contain a real negotiation of power and desire. She is aware that this is a complex soup/mix9 and Griffiths dares to present it, knowing she treads upon complicated and shifting ground.


Simms’ Fugitive paintings are based on photographs amassed from newspapers, television, security cameras and the internet10. These are images of women on the run, con artists, wanted for fraud or identity theft11. Her work deals with the fluidity of identity, the desire to hide, and hidden desires to be truly known. She uses the medium of paint itself to remind us, by its distracting flattening on the cheek of Fugitive:18 (2006 oil on canvas 60”x48”),that this is a painting, a construction, and not the true identity of this particular woman. Figure and ground dissipate and merge, paint becomes person, who then dissolves back into the pigment.

Here we enter the terrain of desire – these women are wanted but who wants them12? They may be hunted in order to punish them for their acts but Simms wants to explore their elusive identities. To paint someone is to claim them as worthy to be portrayed, preserved. Why paint petty criminals, women on the wrong side of the law? Simms speaks of the fact that these women are daughters, perhaps sisters, mothers, and lovers, that they have lives and stories. Their crimes were fraud and small theft, indicative of someone living at the low end of the economic scale, grasping at straws to get by. Simms herself wonders what drove these women to their small crimes, what led them to a life where they had to run, hide and evade the law13?These are powerful images of women, mediated through Simms, and not the person(alities) themselves. Any portrayal of a person is fleeting, momentary and incomplete. Yet these paintings are compelling, and yes, worthwhile, worthy of the viewer’s attention. Whether it is through invention or media-sourced images, both Griffiths’ and Simms’ portraits of women stretch the traditional terms of the practice.


Wagschal’s work goes beyond the depiction of an “unsparing realism […] the brutal factuality of the flesh and the consequences of aging14” to include compassion, empathy and tenderness. Certainly the textured, veiny hands and feet, the worn flesh and sagging breasts portrayed in pk 22 (2007 acrylic on canvas 5’x7’) bespeak a consciousness of aging and decay. But through her work, often dealing with concepts of beauty and aging as a woman15, Wagschal is recognizant of both the preciousness and the pragmatics of the physical body. pk 22 is the name of the chair depicted in the painting. It is a Danish, modern design, and the floor rug is modern too. Wagschal is referencing the history of modern art here, yet she foregrounds the figure, the woman16. Her red curling hair, pink bowed high-heeled shoes and cigarette gesture towards the conventions of pin-up girls17, but this woman is too psychologically present to allow the viewer to simply drift into their own objectifying fantasy. Hung high on the wall, the large painting has power. This woman is nude, but she is larger than life, and looms above the viewer, looking down on us looking up at her.

There is laughter, humour and irony in her portrayal of the mundane earthly reality of our pleasures, fairy tales, myths and fantasies. Wagschal states: “As a sensuous medium which contains meaning embedded in pleasure, painting embodies a metaphor of mind, body and spirit.(19)” Wagschal’s gaze may be unflinching in its cognition of aging and death, but there is an empathy there too, an engagement in and awareness of sensuality and relationship despite/in the midst of birth, aging and death.


The lush yet reticent figures in Werner’s images have a stiffness and elegance similar to that seen on the pages of many fashion magazines. In Landscape with Collie dog, girl and flowers (2007 oil on canvas 87”x65”) we see a teen girl standing with a dog. Her crimson-white skin, blonde hair and lush lips are stereotypically beautiful. The painting, especially the collie dog, is depicted in a paint-by-numbers, cheesy style. Werner told me in an interview that this was intentional, but did not explain why20. Are we given a template in life, an image to fulfill, just paint-by-numbers and all will be well? Perhaps Werner is being ambiguous in order for the viewer to create their own story. This girl, surrounded by flowers, a plastic blue sky, and too idyllic mountains, is reminiscent of a paper doll; ready to be dressed in her future. Yet, despite her all too sparkling setting this young woman seems solitary, isolated, and a trifle overwhelmed by the great looming unknown. The writers at Parisian Laundry wrote that “the underlying subject of the work remains an experience of isolation, the paintings embody not only ideals of innocence and beauty but also the loss or failure of those ideals.2122

Head and Hands

The artists in Some Girls create both tension and balance by claiming their power and their desire. There is a recognition that the roles available to them as women, the ones that would allow them to fulfill their desires, would force them to relinquish their hard won power. Rather than being strictly tragic or angry, these women, in diverse and differentiated ways, seek out, create, conjure up, imagine, invent if they must, ways of navigating the terrain between power and desire, intellect and sensuality, independence and interdependence. Some Girls embodies a refusal to lose their heads in order to be physically/sexually desirable. But the inverse is also true: these girls refuse to lose their female bodies, their desire(ability), their lustiness, and their longing for physical connection, pleasure and touch, for the sake of intellectual independence. Some Girls is also a refusal of dichotomy; they insist on retaining both their head and their hands.


1. The Visual Arts Centre. http://www.centredesartsvisuels.ca/e/gallery/current.php, 2006. (accessed 18/09/2007.)
2. Simms, Lorraine. Conversation paraphrased, Montreal, 29/09/2007.
3. Alexander, Dagmar. Eliza Griffiths’ Protégés: These Bad Girls Are Not Bad Girls. http://articles.halfempty.com/art/98-05-11.htm, May 11, 1998. (accessed 26/09/2007.)
4. Griffiths, Eliza. (artist’s statement) www.katharinemulherin.com. (accessed 26/09/2007.)
5. The Visual Arts Centre. http://www.centredesartsvisuels.ca/e/gallery/current.php, 2006. (accessed 18/09/2007.)
6. Griffiths, Eliza. Conversation paraphrased, Montreal, 29/09/2007.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Langford, Martha, publication for exhibit Fugitive, at the Maison de la culture Marie-Uguay, Montreal, 7 March – 15 April, 2007.
10. Simms, 29/09/2007.
11. Langford, 7 March – 15 April, 2007.
11. Simms, 29/09/2007.
13. The Visual Arts Centre. http://www.centredesartsvisuels.ca/e/gallery/current.php, 2006. (accessed 18/09/2007.)
14. Wagschal, Marion. Conversation paraphrased, Montreal, 29/09/2007.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Wagschal, Marion. http://clubs.plattsburgh.edu/museum/wagschal4.htm, 2005. (accessed 26/09/2007.)
19. Werner, 29/09/2007.
20. Parisian Laundry. http://www.parisianlaundry.com/artists/werner013, 2005-2007. (accessed 26/09/2007.)
21. Werner’s own statement regarding her work exhibited in Lazarus Effect at the Prague Biennale in 2003, seems aptly suited to the work exhibited in Some Girls. Werner wrote:

“What attracted me to these images in the beginning was desire, the desire projected by the images and the desire I felt myself to possess them. … The photograph looks real, the painting corny, fake – like a bad version of the photograph, a failed attempt at realism. The photograph looks contemporary, the painting dated. … It is an apt metaphor for the desire that first spawned this project, as desire is always about a distance that cannot be bridged, a distance that once closed, destroys the thing it wants. In the end, the paintings reframe the problematics of desire…”
Werner,Janet. http://www.praquebiennale.org/artists/lazarus/werner.php, 2003. (accessed 26/09/2007.)

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