Seduction Subversion: Petrina Hicks - Art Collector

Issue 65, July - September 2013

Petrina Hicks' is a technical master, using her photographic skills to camouflage the discomfort that underpins her compositions.

Petrina Hicks, Venus, 2013. C-type print, 100 x 100cm. Courtesy: the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

From the moment Petrina Hicks made the switch from commercial photography to art photography, she had the makings of the singular style she is acclaimed for today.

After spending several years as a photographer’s assistant and several more as a photographer herself she had developed a commercial visual vocabulary, the subversion of which, is one of the fundamental elements of her impeccably beautiful and uncanny artworks.

Frustrated by the lack of conceptual critique in commercial work and with the banality of ideas in the commercial world, Hicks’s turned her focus to the possibilities of fine art photography. Importantly, this background gave her a technical facility that has become a perfect companion to her conceptual aims.

Since becoming a full-time artist, Hicks began producing a number of unforgettable images that combine her unique mix of a high-end commercial style with conceptual content, images that are simultaneously elusive and seductive. One such work is Shenae and Jade, which depicts a stationary moment of a child swallowing a bird – an image that’s become familiar to many in the contemporary art world. It is typical of a Hicks photograph, combining dichotomous elements – bird versus human - that are often employed by the artist. It is also visually compelling, technically precise, and abstract in its meaning.

Indeed, all of Hicks’s works sit between the idiosyncratic and the iconic. This ambivalent state that the images embody can be seen as a result of Hicks’s approach to photography. As she says: “I’ve never used the camera in a spontaneous/documentary way. Making the photographs feels like creating sculptures in front of the lens.”

This is precisely how Robert McFarlane describes Hicks’s perhaps most compelling series of portraits; an albino girl called Lauren. In describing Lauren McFarlane says: “This is the closest I have seen photography come to slipping its two dimensional bonds to become sculpture.”
Another aspect of this series highlights Hicks’s original technique in the way she creates images where light and focus seem to almost emanate from the subjects themselves - unlike other art photographers who use commercial techniques to create slick surfaces.

This complication of the techniques of commercial photography is a purposeful one. As Hicks explains, “I held on to the aesthetic techniques I’d developed through working commercially, but it was the coding, language, sub-text I was aiming to subvert. I was aiming for these images to be misinterpreted as commercial images, by creating only slight ruptures to the surface of the image - by way of ambiguous meaning, lack of narrative completion to the image, or hinting at darker more subversive ideas - this worked to create a tension within the image. It worked in opposition to the pure and desirable surface aesthetic of the images. They were images that were hard to reconcile, or put in the category of commercial or art. “So the images looked desirable on the surface, but I was aiming to corrupt this process of seduction. There are elements in my images that evoke desire and emotion, yet the images remain ambiguous, because the signs to decode them are absent.”

This always leaves the viewer with a slightly uncomfortable feeling. Can they be sure what they are looking at? Is it even photography in the sense that we know it? Certainly the composition of Hicks’s works makes you aware of reality as a psychological space – a place that can’t be so easily represented by generic documentary-style photography. At the same time, the work presents an otherworldly place, a place without context. As Hicks puts it, “The surface of the images are parading as commercial photographs, but the underlying ideas don’t allow for the images to be consumed as such. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of creating images that are beautiful and desirable on the surface, that draw people in … but then gently pulling the rug away, before they’ve realised it. These images promise satisfaction, but don’t deliver it in the expected way, the way we are conditioned to read commercial photographs.”

Hicks’ latest series explores, among other things, the essence of photography – what sets it apart from other mediums, particularly painting. Again she has produced a knock-out group of works where dichotomies circulate in strangely elegant ways, meaning remains open, and beauty is not about benign perfection.

Carrie Miller

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