A  solo show held at the Gas Station Arts Centre in 2010, dedicated to the chicks of Winnipeg who rock. The show was based around hardcore don’t fuck with me portraits of women completed in both oils and acrylics.

Artist’s Statement

IRON MAIDENS is a portrait series culled from my experience regarding women. For most of my adult life I’ve been surrounded by and worked almost exclusively with men. They have been my peers, my lovers, my confidantes, my mentors, my drinkin’ buddies, and my inspiration. I’ve been ‘one of the guys’, a title that I’ve always reveled in and been proud of.

In the past I didn’t really have many close women friends. Too be quite honest I didn’t want to. I found my relationships with women to be based on a strange passive aggressive dance filled with the overly wrought emotions of Cinderella wannabes or shrouded in a slut/whore syndrome more akin to competitiveness than companionship. I believed that women competed indirectly with other women because they had not learned how to recognize and channel their internal desires, feelings and goals into physical, tangible realities and used their insecurities to victimize themselves and make life hellish for others.

The IRON MAIDENS series of paintings is founded on the unraveling of self, beliefs, attitudes, and acceptance regarding the sisterhood. They are portraits of women I find myself surrounded by, that I respect, admire and am fascinated with. It all starts with a snapshot that strikes my fancy, which evolves into an exaggeration of the essence of each subject on canvas. The medium, style and composition of each work is dictated by what I feel the subject wishes to reveal to me. Alternatively, each portrait forces me to recognize those different aspects within myself. Each piece then becomes rooted in my own anecdotal and mythological meanderings laced with just a hint of cyanide.

My work strips away the glossy façade of the centuries-old convention of idealized femininity. The women portrayed are not shrinking violets, they are exploding with emotion, passion, and action seething beneath their flesh and boiling over on to the canvas. These are women of the new world. Bold, powerful and passionate they don’t play by rules they make their own.  They confront the order of society and their place in it. Using their tragedies, insecurities, and troubled psyches as an experience, rather than the limit of their existence. They wear their fears like badges of honour wrapped in a dark and twisty sense of humour and move on all balls forward.

This show is dedicated to all the women who come out fighting everyday to make their presence known. They scream, they hurt, they love, they are human, they are my muses, they make me a better person, they are my IRON MAIDENS.


Artist’s portraits of women confrontational, challenging

This brash new exhibit at the High Octane Gallery attempts to counteract centuries of dewy, idealized images of femininity.

Given the crushing weight of art history, that’s not really something that can be accomplished in one show. But Winnipeg artist Arlea Ashcroft does her darnedest, with aggressive technique, in-your-face subject matter and a whole lot of screw-you attitude.

Paintings by Arlea Ashcroft: left, I'm a Mess; centre, Broken Window; above, Deny the Fear.
I'm a Mess by Arlea Ashcroft.

The results are uneven but undeniably ferocious.

Ashcroft is a multimedia creative dynamo and woman-about-town, having worked in theatre, film and music. (She’s maybe best known as the guitarist Battered Shrimp with the local all-girl punk band Shrimp). A self-taught painter, she’s been creating portraits of real-life “iron maidens” for the past two years.

In her confessional artist’s statement, Ashcroft admits that she once spent most of her time hanging out with men. She had little use for female friendship, viewing it as a snare of sly sexual competition and weird emotional drama. Lately, though, she’s reversed that position and come to respect and rely on the women in her life. Ashcroft’s newfound appreciation for the sisterhood finds fierce expression in this ode to tough, angry, unconventional women.

Working from snapshots — often the kind of half-drunk party pics that show up on Facebook — Ashcroft exaggerates certain details to get to the core of her subject. Most of the women are caught in confrontational close-up, often yelling and giving the camera the finger. Drama Queen sprouts devil horns, while the red-haired woman in I’m a Mess wears a button that says just that.

There are lots of subculture trappings — vinyl bustiers and goth jewelry and fetish-wear like PVC masks and dog collars. A piece called Barracuda depicts some obscure erotic action in a public washroom.

On one level, Ashcroft is documenting a specific social scene. In a larger sense, she’s challenging the usual dynamic of western art, in which woman is a passive object offered up to a male viewer. In Showgrrrl, a statuesque woman on a stage refuses her role as obliging sexual spectacle by confronting her leering audience.

Ashcroft backs up this antagonistic stance with her painting technique, which is deliberately off-putting. Working acrylics and oils in garish, glaring colours, using harsh lines and sharp angles, Ashcroft keeps the viewer on edge.

Clearly, these women aren’t meant to be pretty pictures. As Ashcroft writes in her statement: “They scream, they hurt, they love, they are human.”

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.

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