Petrina Hicks reveals a surreal scene — within a highly controlled studio space by manipulating lighting, background, objects, and her sitters, to achieve these glossy, sculptural photographs.
Words: Emma-Kate Wilson | Photography: Petrina Hicks
Petrina serendipitously found photography — as a free elective while studying for a Journalism Degree. Journalism was dropped, and the artist slipped into commercial fashion photography for ten years before moving on to her own fine arts career.
The aesthetics stem from Petrina's fashion photograph background, yet the ephemeral, beautiful images speak to a futuristic reflection. Bleached Gothic, Petrina’s new exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, highlights and reveals the artist’s use of life and ambiguous setting of place. On the surface, the images have a perfect sheen to them. "I would always try to create a bit of a push-pull effect where there's a rupture within the image, or I've subverted something unexpected or bad," Petrina muses.
One of Petrina’s favourite works, The unbearable lightness of being (2015), sees the sitter, lying naked with her back to the camera across three antique, stone vessels. These scratchy vases against skin allude to the fragility of human flesh, “we’re very fragile creatures,” she adds.
Petrina compares physical flesh against stone and marble, which feeds into a ghostly, and almost spooky atmosphere. These eerie images expose underlying philosophical theories, such as understanding the nature of being — who am I, who am I not? And by using animals in her work, Petrina offers a reflection on a primal identity.
One of Petrina’s most well-known works, Shenae and Jade (2005), depicts a young porcelain-esque girl with a yellow, green, and blue budgie in her mouth. The artist muses on how this photograph came together intuitively, borrowing a taxidermy budgie, and wrapping clingwrap around the head, and asked the girl to put the bird in her mouth — which the curious birds often do.
Phrases surround Petrina’s work of "biblical notions of purity" and "classical Greek motifs;" but also ideas of subverting the male gaze. The artist shares a long fascination with art history and looking at the representation of women. However, "rather than looking at gaze theory, I am trying to free the female subject from the burden of any kind of male gaze,” Petrina explains.
The artist works primarily with lighting, pale backgrounds and props to deliver these surreal and unusual photos that have a sculptural quality. Perhaps this is what adds to the ambiguity? Petrina tests the shot with polaroid to check the lighting, uses film for the photograph and then scans the image high-resolution into the computer.
Thanks to this process, the images need little photoshop, which the artist feels can “cross the line sometimes...the image can lose its authenticity or integrity.” However, when it comes to the set, Petrina is a perfectionist and fixes every element in the studio to achieve the photographs. There is always a bird, snake or dog — yes, even when the dog is lying on the girl, or the snake is wrapped around the model’s body.