Exhibition review: Riggs & Miller, PS Art Space

Two artists and their conversation about the female body in a variety of narratives.

The self-titled exhibition, Riggs & Miller at PS Art Space by Rachel Riggs and Jess Miller, is a grungy, complex, and expansive visual spectacle that melds multiple unadulterated perspectives of the female lived experience through painting, collage, ceramics, and sculptural assemblages.

Originally conceived by the artists during a residency at Fremantle Arts Centre in 2021, the exhibition is a culmination of two very distinct and diverse research led practices that explore similar concerns surrounding the representation of women through personal, historical, and social narratives. 

Drawing parallels between past and present feminist discourse, Riggs & Miller is best described as a current survey of two contemporary female makers grappling to understand their place in the world with fearless and wild abandon.

Executed with a post art-school-like fervour that is refreshing and unapologetically indulgent, some of the prevalent themes include fractured identity, fetishism, subverted gender roles and exalted womanhood all mixed in with an element of ‘dark Lilith’ energy, surrealism, and a few throwbacks to the Victoria era.

Upon entering the gallery, one is initially overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work. Miller’s bold, large-scale paintings dominate the wall spaces and set the scene for the smaller, more intricate mixed media works taking the viewer on a roller-coaster ride of sentimentality, humour and even tragedy.

One of the first works to engage the viewer is a small oil painting by Miller titled Nine Weeks of Perfect Tits (Self Portrait with Cigarette), which depicts a female’s midsection with swollen breasts, holding a smouldering cigarette. The loose, unpolished brushwork combined with heavy contouring give the work a gritty and compelling quality. These aspects are reinforced in the artist’s statement, in which she explains her attempts to convey the crushing weight of indecision experienced the day before an abortion.

Reminiscent of Barbara Kruger’s politically charged Your Body is a Battleground from the late 80s, which features a portrait of a woman’s face half printed in negative, Miller’s self-portrait similarly explores the fracturing of the mind, body and spirit through the polarising nature of abortion still prevalent in society today. 

In Girl Relaxing, the Miller female is described as a naked, ghoulish, and despondent figure cast against a background of searing vermilion – the intensity and vigour of the room clearly at odds with the languorous nature of the subject. She sits hunched over, holding a cigarette while her tired eyes stare out into space. In the background are clues to her burdens and vices; empty bottles of wine lay discarded on the floor along with a cigarette lighter, hair tie and broom. The girl relaxing is in fact a woman depleted, by societal pressures to adhere to feminine ideals and the cumulative effects of repeated harassment, violation, and injustice.  

Alongside Miller’s works are Rachel Riggs’ paintings, collages, and curious sculptural assemblages. With a practice informed by a background in puppetry and theatre arts, she reanimates discarded objects and personal fragments to explore the solitary female-identifying person. 

In Golden Girl 1, the viewer is presented with a cheery collage featuring a conventionally pretty blonde from a 1950s glossy magazine, framed by vintage floral wallpaper and embellished with cut-out insects. At first glance the picture epitomises the perfect girlfriend, with her glowing skin and sunny disposition, ensconced in fertile imagery, yet closer observation reveals signs of decay and tears in the paper – this perfect woman is in fact a mere construct and only exists in dreams.

Read: Theatre review: Shut Up I’m a Vampire

Rachel Riggs Womens Business, found objects, tray series 2021 

One of the stand-out works by Riggs is Women’s Business, an assemblage of found objects and red vintage upholstery. Described by the artist as a ‘votive or folk charm’, it has been constructed to resemble a woman’s external genitalia. The viewers gaze is led directly to the velvety centre only to discover the material representing the clitoris is a bone resembling a broken and bent drinking straw. This discovery casts a psychological shadow on the work and is further amplified by the outer structure revealing itself to be a silver tray. The possibility of the tray being used as a repository for cigarette butts and ashes immediately comes to mind. In Women’s Business, the woman’s creative power is made visible through discarded and unwanted objects.

Nearly all the works in the exhibition are in constant opposition to the traditional male gaze and position the woman as a self-determining catalyst, encouraging the audience to sleuth for the feminine and extend the dialogue instead of adopting the role of the passive bystander. Confident, expressive, and loaded with symbolism, the works in Riggs & Miller are an open invitation into intimate worlds and characters that reveal themselves piece-by-piece through the discovery of embedded prompts and suggestive markers.

Riggs & Miller
PS Art Space, Fremantle, WA
Riggs & Miller was on displayed from 10-24 September 2022

Stephanie Reisch is an interdisciplinary artist, curator, freelance writer and arts educator. She has worked as a design consultant on public art projects nationally, lectured in visual arts at the University of Western Australia and is a former Chairperson of the Victoria Park Centre for the Arts. Her studio is based in Perth (Boorloo), Western Australia.