New work by Bill Henson
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
8 January-3 April 2005
This exhibition of the photographic work of Bill
Henson is notable. He is one of Australia's leading contemporary
artists and his photographs seem closer to the work of figurative
painters, or to film. His technical prowess allows him to deploy
light and dark tonality in the tradition of the great European masters.
In 1987 (see cover here from Studio International
vol 199, no. 1015), we chose to reproduce 'Untitled' (1983/4), a
single female image that remains as potent and moving today as it
did some 18 years ago. In 1987, the French curator Suzanne Page,
selecting for the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
chose Henson's photography and set it in the context of current
painting, sculpture and video, in 'D'Un Autre Continent: l'Australie,
le Reve et le Reel'. However, Henson's work was then mostly played
down by commentators who realised that it did not, of course, fit
externalised preconceptions of what constituted Australian art.
The 'darkened, blurred groups of commuters', for example, seemed
too much like commuters in all cities.
Henson's work continues to reveal a profound romanticism. He dramatises
evident contradictions by means of deliberately raised oppositions.
The work seeks to express a detachment, concentrating attention
on a formal framing that seeks to regulate relevant content. This
is no surprise, since Henson's images come to us clearly located
within the tradition of the fine art photograph. Light and dark
areas bring out some contrasts and emphasise others by placing them
in the foreground.
In Henson's crowd scenes, the various figures seem to be held in
frame, in unison. In fact, Henson draws much inspiration from postwar
America and reveals many cues which he had picked up from the paintings
of the period.
Last year, the New Yorker correspondent wrote, 'Henson's elegant,
formal photographs - of battered landscapes and fragile, wispy youths
- resemble nothing so much as Flemish still lives; rarely has colour
photography captured so profoundly the furry texture of night time.'
Henson uses long focus to establish clear oppositions in effect.
His more recent work exists on the fringes of urban landscape, bringing
together rural and industrial sites. Dreaming, vagrant figures seem
to populate these abandoned realms, redolent with a profound sense
Dennis Cooper, writing in Artforum International in 2002,
says, 'Henson's achievement lies not so much in the twist he gives
to the subject of disenfranchised youth, but in the almost pre-modern
beauty he conjures from such a familiar and clinically post-postmodern
As Henson himself says, 'The work might begin with a fleeting impression
from first-hand experience, or in a piece of music I am always drawn
back to, or perhaps in a paragraph of writing I cannot forget -
and then it takes its own course. I become like a participant in
some larger process I happen to be fascinated by. It seems inevitable
that at those times, when one is most involved in the work, one
is also most detached. The momentum of things becomes self-sustaining.'
The retrospective book on Bill Henson, Mnemosyne, was published
in January 2005, in Zurich and Sydney, to coincide with this new
exhibition. It features numerous essays by Edmund Capon, Dennis
Cooper, David Malouf, Bernice Murphy and Judy Annear. The joint
publishers are Scalo Verlag AG, of Zurich and the Art Gallery of
New South Wales, Australia. In Studio International, Memory
Holloway's groundbreaking article was itself published in 1986/1987.