Pat Brassington, Bayonet, 2013, ink-jet print, 39 3/8 × 29 1/8".

Pat Brassington, Bayonet, 2013, ink-jet print, 39 3/8 × 29 1/8".

Pat Brassington

Stills Gallery | Sydney

Pat Brassington, Bayonet, 2013, ink-jet print, 39 3/8 × 29 1/8".

Pat Brassington’s recent show came in the wake of a thirty-year retrospective of her work that toured Australia starting in 2012 and running through this year. The Sydney event was a more modest affair, largely devoted to recent work: her 2013 series “In search of the marvellous” and four photomontages from 2014. Although Brassington emerged in the 1980s with a practice attuned to postmodernist appropriation and psychoanalytically informed feminisms, her method owes as much to modernist traditions such as Dada montage and Surrealism. Indeed, these days the artist is often described as Australia’s preeminent Surrealist working in photography. But while Brassington’s oeuvre may recall now-familiar early-twentieth-century ways of demonstrating that rationalist principles provide an incomplete picture of the mind and reality, she usually supplies a few surprises.

The eighteen pigment prints of “In search of the marvellous” distill memories of Surrealist art, gothic atmospherics, and B-grade horror films to present a connoisseur’s guide to aberrant nature. A number of the works reflect Brassington’s tendency to depict femininity as submitted to psychosocial entrapment or as the agent of patriarchal anxiety. In the ethereal black-and-white print Pansy, the nose and mouth of a dreamy-eyed woman reminiscent of a 1920s fashion model are blotted out by the blackened petals and glowing stamens of a graphically rendered blossom. Deft digital manipulation transmutes the anodyne romance of woman-as-flower into a picture of facial deformation and woman’s suffocation, by a floral emblem of female humility and uncomplaining devotion. The work vaguely recalls Raoul Ubac’s 1937 photograph Mannequin, a close-up of the caged head of an André Masson mannequin, whose bound mouth is plugged with a pansy, conjuring both bondage and lethal sexual appetite. Unlike Ubac’s exploitation of straight photography’s forensic precision to frame fetishistic scenarios, however, the hazy, otherworldly patina of Pansy speaks of nostalgic fantasy infiltrated by a delicate touch of menace. Another photomontage, Bayonet, printed in vaporous charcoals, whites, and grays, shows the blackened head of a blown light bulb dangling between a woman’s unnaturally distended, trunk-like thighs; it might have been culled from horror-movie versions of monstrously phallic femininity. While the Cyclopean eye of the bulb recalls a Surrealist disordering of anatomical and gendered categories—eye, egg, penis, navel, breast, anus, vagina—the strongest impression given is that of woman equipped with a military flail between her legs.

Three of the 2014 works attest to Brassington’s occasional leavening of black-and-white montage with delicate shades of pink, which, in her hands, is equally likely to broach girlish innocence and decorum or the watery, rose-tinted yellow of blood plasma. Both intimations operate in Rosa, an erotically charged corruption of child portraiture. Here, a girl’s egg-shaped face, wiped of features and framed by a pudding-bowl haircut, is adorned with the puffy, voluptuous folds of a huge pink bow, its hanging ends suggesting twinned elephant trunks. This sweet little elephant girl also channels the ham-fisted labial metaphors of certain 1930s paintings by Paul Delvaux, in which the bodies of female nudes are gift-wrapped in pink bows. But as is typical of Brassington’s works, there is little sign of feminist criticism. Instead, it seems that we are invited to take our fill from the cabinet of perversities that are her stock in trade.

Toni Ross