Some 10 years ago, Australian photographer Bill Henson was the subject of rolling controversy, with opprobrium upon him cast from household kitchens to houses of Parliament. His use of young pubescent models in attitudes that insinuate sexual imaginings, while accepted as artistic prerogative within the confines of a gallery, met with public outcry when the picture of an almost-naked girl made its way outside the esoteric space on invitation cards.
His latest exhibition features large-scale photographs that examine the themes of nudes and portraits, their relationship with museum exhibits, a fascinating interplay with lush, meditative landscapes braided through it.
Rich and sensuous and graceful the images exude atmosphere in a room so pitch it is as if you’ve been granted privileged access to the artist’s darkroom. When your eyes have adjusted to the low illumination, you begin to begin to notice just how smooth-tender flesh approaches in shade and light to the likeness of fine marble, of which sculptures captured in works selected for display here are made.
A boy leaning forward to pull a thorn from his foot resting on one knee bears uncanny resemblance to the structure of the stone Spinario in a photograph a few photographs along the wall.
By photographing the juxtaposition of great, ancient art inside famous halls with visitors inspecting them, Henson opens up a conversation about whether one may indeed become art through the simple act of observing.
In the same way the landscapes on show are studies of twilight — the in-between moments that straddle days — figures in the portraits are in that delicate phase of woman-child or child-man in which they look nearly androgynous. Invariably self-absorbed, preoccupied with internal reveries, heads averted or bowed, limbs hanging, other times strained, young sitters startle with their precocious expressions wedged into the gap between delirium and discomfort, the transitory spell from resistance to surrender.
Bill Henson is not a narrative; it is a mood poem dwelling on an elusive, momentary condition, and a dialogue that explores imagination in all its (im)possibilities.