Brenda Petays’ Strange to Meet You

[First published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, 2008]

Brenda Petays’ drawings line the bead board walls of the Slide Room Gallery in a darkly flickering cinematic progress…which is to say that as one moves from picture to picture images meet others halfway, seeming to breed one another, as if naming the viewer as complicit in their having been dreamed. In the corner propped and straightened like box camera or guard dog is a composite constructed from a portable easel containing two shredded books and many neat cigar boxes, one of which undertakes a miniature mock up of a studio apartment grown dark from spending too long in a forgetful region of the conscience. Above the whole a light bulb is dangled, somewhat redundantly granting the air of watchful dereliction.

Nearby on a wall are scrawled the contents of the easel’s boxes, which tend to recuse themselves from too much inquiry, excepting perhaps the identities of those books that have been soaked and scrubbed until they are platters of pulp…A Thousand Plateaus is one of them, and Petays’ visual mastication undoubtedly undertakes the oral promise of Deleuze’s haptic/nomadic commons. Around the base of the easel is a big sailor’s rope, like a punchline dropped before being properly delivered. It’s a bit of a lover’s knot: the band around the oval plank of a Cubist souvenir collage…so the tether’s broken, but the contents hold tight. Do you want to get this or don’t you?

The watercolours are adolescent humour-as-momentary-connection: morbid, grotesque, funny before or after the shock their humour giddily insinuates. Faces of family and friends are doctored, mostly unpleasantly, reminding us that to do injury to others is a way of being oneself touched (the nauseous intimacy of another person’s lips and teeth to the knuckles)…this thought aided by a group of comic-book mock-ups, Nurse and Wound, featuring “Witch Nurse”, “Action Nurse”, etc., that could be read as a way of working rather than disparate acts: artist as nurse. The wound pulls faces to the surface of the picture, sends stress-signals to that almond-shaped bit of the brain that twitches the hippocampus to record this face forever; for sensation’s sake (it hurts) and not compassion. Pain appears here as a prosthetic extension of attraction, a way of making curiosity more doable.

The mistake is to believe for more than a moment that Petays’ subjects are in the way of any serious harm. They’re injuries are comedic. A series of scarred and perforated Vogue magazine covers are more seriously acting out. The images belong to all of us, and seeing them change mints an introvert’s humour into shining sarcasm. The scratches and rubbings on those celebrated faces and bodies look devotional, amplify fame whilst bluffing with persona. They are rich with the fondness of the real fan, and we can almost see ourselves in them. Down below are cut and stacked sections of the mags: “Vogue Bucks”, conveying rather ungraciously the deadweight of a good cosmetic purchase. It’s the necessary counterweight to the filmy shallowness Petays achieves with her webs of scar tissue: the slump under the glamour, the unconsciously dragged pickup skip from hope to gloss, reflecting back the depressive sleepwalkers we can sometimes seem to be. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock (quoted by Petays on the wall) said it memorably of a night as full of dull promise: “Like a patient etherized upon a table”

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