Grrrls, Grrrls, Grrrls

“Riotgrrrl is [ . . . ] because we are angry at a society that tells us Girls = dumb, Girl = bad, Girl = weak,” wrote Kathleen Hanna in 1991, as part of The Riot Grrrl Manifesto. Hanna was the lead singer of Bikini Kill, an all-female lineup of punk rockers who, in the same year, self-released a cassette entitled “Revolution Girl Style Now!” The motto was quickly embraced by the riot grrrl movement. They called for women to create their own scene; to revolutionize music, art and writing in an entirely “girl power” way. They moved feminism out of the ivory tower and into the underground music scene of Washington, D.C.

Echoes of the riot grrrl cry resonate in “Show Grrrl,” a wildly expressive portrait of a woman with deep auburn hair and a hot pink boa over her shoulders. In one hand dangles a lit cigarette, the other flashes a perfectly manicured middle finger to the viewer. Done in an illustrative style using vivid colours, this “Show Grrrl” assaults the very notions of “girls = weak.” The portrait hangs alongside 10 other highly-stylized oil paintings of “in your face” women as part of the show “Iron Maidens” by local artist Arlea Ashcroft, currently being shown at the High Octane Gallery.

Rather than referring to torture chambers, the exhibition title reflects the defiant personalities that these women embody. “’Iron Maidens’ sort of said it all,” explained Ashcroft. “Most of the chicks in the portraits are all in the music scene. They are all rock girls.” As such, it comes as no surprise that Ashcroft has been involved in the local music scene, playing guitar for the (recently defunct) all-female punk band Shrimp.

“It depends who you talk to, a lot of people could look at these ladies as medieval torture devices, but it’s more about the music thing. It’s more about an attitude. You know, these are women of iron. They are not just your fair maidens. They are not your typical portrait of femininity at its finest, lavender flowers. These women rip the heads off of flowers,” said Ashcroft.

Through hand gestures, facial expressions and body language these portraits assault traditional representations of women in art. The artist explained, “There are enough pictures of women in the history of painting — particularly portrait work — of shy smiles, coy grins, little looksies, seductresses, slutty whores, let’s say, and I wanted to have a fighting attitude.”

Ashcroft does just that. There are no smiles to be seen in “Iron Maidens,” only raised firsts, and mouths caught mid-scream. With visible brushstrokes, there are women in white dresses wearing gas masks, “ready for battle” rather than preparing to be the perfect bride. In another work, Ashcroft interprets perfect matrimony through a portrait without a face; it is a cropped image of a woman below the belt with a man’s tattooed arm resting suggestively on her thigh.

“I sorted through photos that I had taken of her at a bar one night and the thing that I liked about this particular shot is that her husband’s hand is in there and you can see their wedding ring. And so to me that is some sort of punk rock wedding bliss,” said Ashcroft.

Many of the works in the collection are highly personal images of the artist’s friends. Because of this closeness, Ashcroft was able to capture heightened moments in which her subjects are displaying emotions nakedly. Whether they are screaming at the top of their lungs or ferociously glaring outward, the viewer always gets a strong sense of the subject’s character and personality.
Ashcroft has celebrated these women and, to her, an Iron Maiden is “someone who speaks their mind, doesn’t take shit and doesn’t become a victim to their own tragedies. Bad things happen to everybody, I wanted to show that these are people, who had bad things happen, moved forward and I really admired that skill because sometimes it’s hard [ . . . ] but, most of these gals, they turn it into a song. They will play it out on the stage, they’ll write it down, they’ll use it, they’ll enrich their lives through their experience, as opposed to shut it down.”

Iron Maidens runs at the High Octane Gallery in the Gas Station Theatre until March 14.