Kindred spirits

• Women’s Business by Rachel Riggs (below) and Jess Miller’s Girl Relaxing (above) feature in their joint exhibition Riggs & Miller.

ARTISTS Jess Miller and Rachel Riggs use their biting North of England wit to deconstruct the traditional image of women in art.

Don’t expect a belle reposing in a flowing gown on a chaise longue in the soft vernal light in their exhibition Riggs & Miller, it’s more like Tracey Emin scoffing a three-day old McDonalds, shifting the lens on how we view women and why we should do it.

Featuring paintings, ceramic sculptures, collage and installation, it’s all done with a wry smile and is highly entertaining, not some didactic lecture on gender or a party political bore.

The pair hit it off while doing a residency program at the Fremantle Arts Centre, bonding over their English heritage – Miller is originally from Yorkshire and Riggs from Manchester.

Miller is an emerging painter/ceramic sculptor who studied fine art at Leeds Metropolitan University, while Riggs is an established multi-disciplinary artist who worked extensively in British theatre and TV, before moving to Australia.

One of the exhibition highlights is Miller’s striking oil painting Girl Relaxing.

Naked, cigarette in hand, half-hunched on a chair in a sparse room with empty bottles of wine strewn across the floor, the painting strips back the subject to its vulnerable core.

“It’s a figurative self-portrait of sorts, certainly inspired by my own internalised thinking of identity and self-image and whether the two relate,” Miller says.

“The character could be anyone who may have expended time alone pondering existential thoughts over your favourite guilty pleasure(s). 

“To me, it symbolises a range of personalities, freedom and captivity, enjoyment, frivolity, shared experience and sometimes stress and anxiety. It’s an old me that I celebrate whilst happy to have progressed beyond.”

Miller’s favourite painter is Lucian Freud, known for his psychologically revealing and unsettling portraits, and she also cites Barbra Krol, Dorothea Tanning and David Hockney, as well as old masters like Goya and Rembrandt.

Away from the easel, she likes Greyson Perry’s and Tracey Emin’s militant approach to art making, and the tenacity of Marina Abromović.

“I’ve grown up visiting galleries across Europe with incredible collections of art. Huge and imposing pieces of work depicting women on a metaphorical platter throughout the ages. I pay satirical homage to this traditional artwork again through scattered items – wine, cigarettes, keys, etc. It adds a bit of humour to the overall piece by presenting figures in this way, in solitude, but I take the gaze away from the viewer, removing the invitation and the platter.”

The other half of the exhibition features Riggs’ “femmage” – a female-view collage of everyday objects with hidden depths.

Featuring a broken suspender belt, wishbone and red upholstery fabric couched in an oval bowl, Women’s Business looks like it was alluding to a woman’s period, but it’s all open to interpretation.

“At first glance, Women’s Business appears to be an offering to feminine beauty – a votive or folk charm, used for healing and displayed at altars,” Riggs says.

“However, as you look closer at the assembled work, you can see small selected items are creating an illusion of the female form.

“I’ve been creating femmage for over 20 years, with many not being shown to the public until recently. 

“This exhibition of collected works, highlights the main artworks and reframes them in today’s political climate with continuing inspiration from social constraints, patriarchal and institutionalised views to being female past, present and future.”

Although Riggs & Miller tackle some serious issues around gender and femininity in their exhibition, pathos and humour are never far away.

“As Camille Paglia said ‘We must accept our pain, change what we can and laugh at the rest’,” Riggs says.

Riggs & Miller is at the PS Art Space on Pakenham Street in Fremantle from September 10 – 23.

by STEPHEN POLLOCK

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