Bill Henson: 3 Decades of Photography, Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. 23/4/2005 - 10/7/2005

From: Christopher Jones
Category: Art
Date: 22 October 2005


Striking but not quite Hensonesque, the telling series of the Bill Henson: 3 Decades of Photography exhibition hangs near the end. Large ripped up photographs assemble to show apocalypse scenes where naked adolescents walk over sunken cars and through puddles of muddy petrol, all surrounded by dark-pale trees. The story is Arcadia corrupted by Modernism, where innocence, symbolised by the once-pure youngsters is replaced by vacuous barbarism. The type of bad bacchanal Larry Clark would entice.

The strength of each picture, aiding consignment to the 1995 Venice Biennale, issues from visual brunt. Less divergent collage, more lucid assemblage, each consumes the senses like optical merlot; so that we can wander near each rumpled surface and imagine the stench of oily pools rising up the nose; the scent from each spoiled torso. Piqued by Henson’s use of the title untitled, each scene is musty, indefinite - until we step back.

And notice recognizable sentiment and structure. Here and throughout the exhibition, buoyed by light Neo-Classic style, a nostalgic yearning for times passed, before Modernity arced-up steam. A backwards look. And to echo Neo-Classic scenarios, boy Cupid curls in the corner of a grand circular frame, while teenage Dianas walk barefoot through scenes of moral dis-enlightenment. Henson admitted recently taking heavily from European history, from painting, and in particular writing by Thomas Mann, so, not only does he look through a camera’s viewfinder, he sees through an antique European imagination.

Colonial painter John Glover used this curious 2-way perspective: the nimbly coloured Glover’s House and Garden, Mills Plains, Tasmania 1834 shows a small homestead nestled into a just colonized Australia; only the flora and roll of hill is less Tasmania more Northern Europe. Conrad Martens looked through similar bent binoculars before fusing European nomenclature - castles with turrets for instance - with suppositions of realism, to warp cogent presentation of terra ferma underfoot. Swelling each picture’s obvious charm, this distance between imagined fiction and dirty fact splits a gap between us and their hub, generating aesthetic hesitancy. Hesitance filters throughout 3 Decades.

Through an oversized display of his early work, it creeps across the timid facial expressions of doe-eyed ballerinas, round street walking hoi polloi photographed from afar, and covers that pale, desperately photographed boy, explored without end for visual energy. The final, technically redoubtable series actively parades this hesitance: a pouting Eurydice appears so far removed, lost to a dodgy ménage a trois, she implores us, Pull me from this hell Henson’s put me in. Because she is less a cog in any taut evocation of scene, more local add-on to a story from elsewhere. Throughout 3 Decades Henson connects people and place, but any coercive rendition of a scene fades in the baggy formation of concrete and imaginary sight; leaving The Paris Opera Project portraiture as the strongest most Hensonesque work here: loose in a dark studio that excludes overt sense of place, his fascination for human psychology shapes imaginative and taut psycho-dramas, miles from the ground of local implication.