Girlhood: Zoe Hawk in the StudioApril 6, 2016
A group of girl scouts prepare a campsite; schoolgirls in matching jumpers meet between class in a bathroom; young girls in brightly colored party dresses whisper and laugh together. These nostalgia-fueled scenes created by Zoe Hawk are familiar for most women, though there is a deep sense of unease lurking behind each piece.
Zoe came to WSW to work in the Silkscreen Studio and expand upon the themes and aesthetics that she explored in her paintings. With her prints, she removes these girls from their naturalistic settings and decontextualizes their narratives, leaving her uniformed characters to wander among solid, colorful shapes and backgrounds. In this way, Zoe achieves the flat, graphic quality that is found in her reference materials—mid-century American advertisements, children’s books, and stage productions. The disparate source images cohere to create a fake, almost plastic-like stage for Zoe’s characters to act out their scene.
“I piece together these found images from my library of source material with elements from my imagination and memory,” says Zoe, “and then place these figures within the scene like actors in a play.”
With each piece, the viewer finds themselves looking down on the young girls, like dolls in a dollhouse. The viewer is stuck in this voyeuristic position, just as the girls are stuck in these claustrophobic spaces and rigid uniforms. In one of the three prints Zoe made during her Studio Workspace residency, a group of swimmers in matching pink and red swimsuits dive in and float in a seafoam green pool. Beyond the gelatinous cube of the pool is just the whiteness of the page—the women appear quite literally trapped. The viewer watches, transfixed, like they’re at the aquarium, their noses pressed against the glass to get an even closer look at the swimmers.
In another print made during her residency, Zoe was inspired by the story of “emerald green,” a pigment that was incredibly popular in Victorian era fashion despite being rich in arsenic. As women curtsied or twirled, flecks of the poisonous pigment flew up off their dresses and into the air, leading to deadly consequences. “Women, especially at this time, would go to such great lengths to fit into this ideal femininity that it literally poisoned them,” Zoe says. In her print, a group of young women clad in elegant emerald dresses follow each other out a nondescript door, their backs to the viewer. A younger girl in a black dress faces away from the group of women and towards the audience as she mourns their fate.
The woman or girl dressed in black makes her way into several of Zoe’s pieces. This figure, depending on her perceived age, can symbolize womanhood, cloaked in mystery for the younger, carefree girls around her. Or, like in the emerald green piece, she symbolizes a state of transition, still young but watching, helpless, as her childhood fades away.
“In college, I began thinking about my own childhood experiences,” says Zoe. “As a happy and curious girl, I remember womanhood being not only mysterious, but terrifying.”
Within the colorful repetition found in Zoe’s work is a conflict between individual and collective identity. Zoe dresses her characters in bright, matching uniforms that represent the control and social order imposed upon women by a sexist society. At first glance, the repetition of colors and bodies suggests that this control is being maintained, but upon further inspection, Zoe’s characters complicate the picture by asserting their own individuality.
Some of these individual expressions, however, darken Zoe’s deceptively bright prints and paintings. While some of the girl scouts set the campsite, others examine dead rabbits; while some schoolgirls touch up their makeup in a mirror, others sneak out a window and pull on each other’s hair. These small, unsettling moments break through the happy spectacle and hint at the darkness looming as innocence becomes experience. “I want whoever is looking at the work to feel gradually more and more unnerved the longer they spend with each piece,” Zoe says.
Zoe Hawk is an artist living and working in Doha, Qatar. She has an MFA in Painting from University of Iowa and a BFA from Missouri State University. See more of Zoe’s work on her website at zoehawk.com and see more images from her residency on our Flickr.