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Petrina Hicks: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Michael Reid, Sydney

Petrina Hicks (1972) is an Australian artist known for her detailed photographs of subjects in crisp and bemusing environments. Her latest exhibition The Unbearable Lightness of Being is on view at Michael Reid Gallery, Sydney. Hicks’ images read deeply with interpretation. Her practice involves the exploration of history, mythology, ritual and symbolism in relation to the representation of women.

Hicks’ fascination with photography has allowed her to express her ideas as a physical form. In her studio, she arranges these sculptural forms in front of the lens and then records them with the use of the camera. She explains: “I’m interested in making ‘sculptural photographs’, I generally photograph the subjects against a stark background, giving the image lots of space, so the viewer can circulate the subjects as one would a sculpture.” This technique allows attention to be drawn to focus areas without distraction. Subjects are reinforced against their spacious worlds.

With the constant influx of pictures produced daily, Hicks sets her images aside by presenting a recognisable style representative of her aims: “A camera is a tool that can be used in so many different ways, photography that has impact is becoming rare. I try to be as pure with photography as possible, by employing a mostly analogue process and technique. I also aim to reduce as much unnecessary information from the images as possible, boiling the ideas down to a minimum, like alchemy.” Hicks’s practice seeks a more formal and traditional approach: “If I can create exactly what I’m after ‘in camera’ with all the hard work done ‘on set’ and minimal work required in post production then I feel the work has a stronger core.” These works were created over a span of six months. The photography amounted for roughly 20 percent of the process with the rest of the time spent on research and the formulation of the ideas.

The work in this series investigates the continuing relationship between ancient culture and contemporary life, ancient symbolism and motifs. Hicks reveals: “The human condition is ephemeral and fleeting, not permanent like marble and stone relics from the past. I’m interested in looking at how we attempt to reconcile our impermanent nature as human beings.” The photographs are reminiscent of the kinds of sculptures seen from ancient times however they are presented with a modern contemporary aesthetic. Observing depictions of objects that relate to the past can cause reflection on our transition through history and show us how significantly we have changed. The past now remains recorded in these artefacts and when photographed the narrative continues.

The photographs in The Unbearable Lightness of Being are infused with calmness and a gentle hint of oddness. In Serpentina I (2015), the subject’s ability to remain composed as a handful of snakes circulate comfortably around her fingers is a challenging scene to construct, hold and capture. The soft whites and beige colours mingle elegantly to form an environment where all elements appear to be similar, almost the same, distinguished only by the pigments of each organic texture. Detail is so precise that there is a feeling of anticipation that the subject’s hair may shift in its immaculate and pristine state. Hicks hopes that the works in the exhibition will be: “Quiet and still enough to resonate in some way.” The photographs, with their soft hues and enigmatic tones awaken curiosity. Hicks continues to create new and engaging work that leaves viewers with a wish to see more.

Petrina Hicks: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 13 May – 20 June, Michael Reid Gallery, 44 Roslyn Gardens, Elizabeth Bay, Sydney NSW, 2011.

Sara Sweet

Petrina Hicks, Serpentina I, 2015, pigment print, 100.0 x 100.0cm