The bitter-sweet palette of photographer Petrina Hicks

Hicks’ intimate portraits play with our senses, swaying between the surreal and the everyday


By Eloise Rattle


Contemporary Australian artist Petrina Hicks is a master of creating alluring photographic portraits. Her images teeter between the ordinary and the otherworldly. Looking at one of her photographs is like waking up from a delightfully surreal dream – the familiar but enigmatic subjects seem tantalisingly close, but forever out of reach.


Artists are often drawn to the surreal as a way of combating both psychological and physical hardship, as it gives permission for unrestrained artistic expression. Even from our view as the spectators, Hicks’ fabulous utopia is the artistic getaway we all need.


Birth of Venus (2013) from The Shadows series, courtesy of Michael Reid, Sydney and This Is No Fantasy, Melbourne © Petrina Hicks

Hicks’ large-scale pastel works navigate the complex tapestry of connections between the body, nature, art history, and mythology. She exploits her training as a commercial photographer and subverts traditional portrait paintings to create an aesthetic which is both seductive and disturbing.


Women are persistently told to rein in any aspects of an assertive nature as it “doesn’t fit” within the patriarchal ideal of the ‘feminine character’ – whatever on earth that may be. However, through her work, Hicks turns this stereotype on its head.


“Hicks’ large-scale pastel works navigate the complex tapestry of connections between the body, nature, art history, and mythology.“

Hicks plays with and challenges various so-called ‘feminine’ tropes in her work, including: animals, fruit, children, and classical paraphernalia. These attributes are not intended as decorative elements to fill the image, but to rest alongside the figures as an embodiment of the ‘female experience’. It is suggested, too, that whilst representing the wider ‘female world’, these figures act as marionettes – an eye into Hicks’ own psychological realm.


As our judgments and perceptions constantly face re-evaluation, at first glance, Hick’s photographs appear to be an apotheosis of ‘female’ beauty. Upon closer inspection, they are quite the opposite. What we once thought to be polished skin reveals various elements of hurt and decay: bruises, blotches, and gashes. A young girl eats a budgie, a Grecian sculpture sprouts a peach for a head, and a glass of champagne overflows – half full, or half empty?


New Age (2013) from The Shadows series, courtesy of Michael Reid, Sydney and This Is No Fantasy, Melbourne © Petrina Hicks

Hicks’ 2019 exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Bleached Gothic, showcased one of the artist’s most powerful weapons: her manipulation of the senses. Interestingly, Hicks never photographs her models in full-length profile, she focuses either on the bust, or below the hips. The work New Age from 2013 also takes us on an investigation of our sensibilities. We are confronted with a cropped image of what we assume to be a ‘female’ body, due to the typecasting of elegant drapery and pearlescent skin.


Contrasting against the almost translucent skin and silken veils is the defining element of this image – the jagged crop of crystals covering up the figure. As precious stones, gems, and crystals are abundant with connotations, Hicks could be alluding to ‘female’ desires as something to be prized and valued, just as these crystals often hold monetary and symbolic value. However, taking into account the artist’s commercial background and frequent criticism of the subject, we can deduce that she is scorning the persistent exploitation of the ‘female body’ for the sale and advertisement of commerce – in particular, items of great wealth and desire. Through her work, Hicks reminds those who may have forgotten that the ‘female body’ is not available for purchase – nor is it a jewellery stand.


“An integral part of Hicks’ charm is that her work is both entirely familiar but painfully impenetrable.“

The clear quartz used in New Age also makes reference to alternative medicine techniques, which aim to amplify energy and possess restorative and protective powers. In this work, it appears that the artist is either presenting ‘female energy’ as the embodiment of healing through this work – a view which I think I lean towards – or the shrewdly placed quartz could be Hicks attempting to heal the centuries of sexual, emotional, and physical damage endured by women by questioning the ‘values’ placed on women. Whichever conclusion is drawn, the image remains palpable and striking. An integral part of Hicks’ charm is that her work is both entirely familiar but painfully impenetrable.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being series from 2015 also includes countless art historical and classical references. Lauren – Hicks’ model for over 15 years – poses with a small yellow snake in Serpentina I & II. Lauren has albinism and so does the snake – as my serpent research uncovered – who is a baby Albino Python, making them a pair more intrinsically linked than I first thought.


Serpentina I (2015) from The Unbearable Lightness of Being series, courtesy of Michael Reid, Sydney and This Is No Fantasy, Melbourne © Petrina Hicks

Lauren and the snake have a symbiotic relationship – the creature braiding and spiralling around her arm in Serpentina I and II – challenging traditional notions of purity. This work also re-writes two historical narratives which have ingrained themselves into the Western psyche – Adam and Eve, and the tale of Medusa. Both of these traditional stories unfairly vilify the female protagonists for their ‘feminine weaknesses’ and are universally accepted and iterated to children during their formative years. However, Hicks’ work presents Lauren and the creature simply as themselves – a girl and a snake – free from the burdens of this historical narrative.


Hicks’ hyperreal works are both a silent and visually loud protest. The artist rectifies elements of falsified histories, past and present, through her models and props. Instead, she depicts her figures as the epitome of harmony and innocence with, quite literally, a sting in their tails.


Want to see more? Explore Hicks’ work in 3D via the National Gallery of Victoria.