Each of us is a collage, glued haphazardly together in layers torn from the scrapbook of who we once aspired to be, the cultures we aligned ourselves with, and the faces we tried to live up to, to impress the people we loved. On paper and perspex, Ravenous, Rachel Riggs’ current exhibition at Whalley Range’s beloved Carlton Club, picks away at the surface veneers to bring the hidden to light.
These days, Blackpool-born Riggs divides her time between Fremantle in Western Australia and South Manchester, although it’s to the age of Rave’s ascendancy in North West England that her earliest works can be dated. Time has charged these pieces with nostalgia, and it’s hard from the vantage point of today to separate their value as art from the associations they evoke. Fly-postered across perspex retrieved from the now-demolished Hulme Crescents, 1992’s Rave will be for many a Proustian reverie of altered state-dependent memories, triggered by reading anew the graphic shorthand of the 1990s.
Riggs has coined the word ‘Femmage’ to describe her works, which adopt a specifically female perspective across the breadth of her concerns. Her choice of materials stands in symbolic relation to her subject matter, reconfiguring the forgotten and abandoned, and so allowing them to tell their stories. Whether these are the single-use plastics mass-produced to hook a child’s inattentive eye to a particular brand of breakfast cereal, or the no longer fashionable kitchenware consigned to the back of the cupboard, for the most part they emerge from a recognisably domestic sphere.
This aspect of her work is brought home by the wittily Magritte-referencing I’m Not Your Doormat, which, while incontrovertibly the object in question, declines to be the subject of ownership. The feminist subtext in this case hardly needs spelling out.
In many respects her signature piece from the past decade, What Lies Beneath (2021), succinctly embodies the distinct strata of her current practice, excavating each to build up a coherent role. Taking as her surface an off-cut of vintage pink wallpaper given to her during Covid lockdown in Western Australia, Riggs applies a superficially prettifying scattering of the type of stylised illustration seen on 1970s’ girls’ birthday cards while simultaneously peeling away the pinkness to suggest the older, darker wall coverings from years gone by. Released by this stripping back of the human touch, insects teem forth, as though to place the comparatively brief life span of our species into a more geological timeframe.
Other recent works refer in a more straightforward fashion to Riggs’ personal iconography. In Stardust, the living David Bowie of 1973 stares back at us from the Heddon Street telephone box of the past, serenely confident that he’s about to write the future. Jackie, on the other hand, idolises the million-selling novelist Jackie Collins before her own rise and fall.
Unapologetically analogue in an increasingly digital world, Riggs’ work nudges the viewer into reconsidering their viewpoint as much with the bite of her humour as the hunger of her commitment and, in doing so, slipping beneath the woodchip of their defences.
In the nicest possible way, be prepared to be unpeeled.
Main image: Out To Lunch by Rachel Riggs
Ravenous by Rachel Riggs is at The Carlton Club, Whalley Range, Manchester until August 3, 2023. For more information, click here.