Words by Jerico Tracy
Walking up the stairs at Roslyn Oxley9 for the opening of the long-awaited Bill Henson exhibition you are immediately met with what you came for: evocative large-scale photographs of romantic landscapes and marbled flesh.
The self-titled exhibition is the Australian photographer’s first show in Sydney in seven years and marks his return to the Paddington gallery where his 2008 exhibition was cancelled mere hours before opening night.
Following an aggressive media campaign, police raided the Paddington gallery, seized photographs deemed indecent, and threatened to charge the artist with accusations of perversion. In the end, no charges were made and the exhibition went ahead—only to spark a nation-wide debate about art, children, censorship, regulation, and the media.
Since then, the artist has held solo exhibitions both in Sydney and Melbourne, and continued to create work that combines landscapes and nude figures. In this latest exhibition, Henson presents 28 serenely beautiful photographs of dark landscapes, crumbling ancient sites and young adolescents in tender embraces. Although the subject matter may seem somewhat diverse, the tone of the series is unwavering, generating a narrative between recognition and memory.
Set against dramatic skies and deepening shadows, hovering between dusk and twilight, Henson instils the landscape and ancient ruins with a sense of mystery, namely in their inextricable relationship to time and place. Each of the works remains untitled, with the extended date spans attributed to each work revealing the often year-long development of each work. The locations in which they’ve been photographed by Henson are not immediately revealed, which further plays into the enigmatic nature of the images.
Intimacy and vulnerability are apparent throughout the works, but no more so than in the nude adolescent figures. The dramatic inky tone and texture of light touching skin—a signature of Henson’s—is often haunting, but beautifully so. The tonal contrast between flesh and darkness allows the gestures of the body to slip in and out of the abyss.
Unframed and pinned to board, the raw presentation is perhaps unexpected for works with a starting price of $57, 000. Yet, there is something unapologetic about the installation that resonates with the context of the work. Henson is notoriously particular about every detail of his exhibitions, especially the way in which his work is installed and lit. The result is an expressive presentation, that embodies the sentiments of German romanticism; considering the relationship between nature and human-kind.
The influence that Henson’s work has had on the Australian art scene is unquestionable. At the opening, there are countless artists and photographers relaying that Henson is the reason they got into photography in the first place. There seems to be nothing but affection and admiration for Henson in the room, and the controversy of 2008 seems long forgotten.
Bill Henson by Bill Henson is now showing at Roslyn Oxley9 in Paddington, Sydney until June 8, 2019.