Bill Henson at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
For almost as long as humans have lived, we’ve feared death, found ourselves transfixed by youth, and struggled to succumb to – or even agree upon – the point at which childhood ends and adulthood begins. Bill Henson appears to be as transfixed as anyone else – less by youth itself, perhaps, and more by the decreasingly distinguishable point at which we put it behind us. It’s the stage of our lives known as adolescence, when a human being is not a child or an adult, and is typically treated as neither. It’s the label we’ve given the years through which we travel in blissful naivety and amicable ignorance. For Bill Henson, the subject informs and fuses together much of what we see in his work, and it’s a topic that has often left him forced to defend it.
In 2008, Henson faced complaints that described photographs of nude adolescents included in an exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 gallery as “child pornography”. At the time, Australia’s then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, weighed in to say that the works “bore no artistic merit”. The two-week media circus that ensued saw Henson dominate headlines across the nation, with leading commentators leaning in to condemn the works and, ultimately, Henson himself. The allegations eventually amounted to nothing, as the works were later classified PG, and the exhibition was allowed to continue.
Fast forward to today, and Henson’s works, as it turns out, do appear to have been of artistic merit. But while the predominant themes of Henson’s art have remained largely unchanged over the past 10 years, cornerstones of popular culture have evolved tenfold, and continue to do so at breakneck speed. During an age ruled by higher expectations, with a shifting face of Western culture and an evolved approach to gender and representation across the board, how does Henson’s work reflect culture today?
Comprising 28 archival inkjet pigment prints, the exhibition lures us through the gallerist’s mainstay to observe vivified nods to themes of the Renaissance, while we unpack Henson’s attempt at a renaissance of his own. The show emerges after a 2017 retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, and offers itself as a prelude to a series of monographs, each scheduled to be published through Editions Bessard (Paris), Thames & Hudson and Stanley Barker (London), later this year.
As you reach the top of the gallery’s staircase, you’re confronted with Untitled 2 (2015-2016), which pictures a Romanesque building of mediaeval stature beneath a sun-bled sky at first or last light. The image’s stark setting and imbued isolation leaves you questioning the photograph’s time stamp, with the only hints marked by modern-day lampposts, which also contribute one of very few colour hues. Without them, you could, for a split second, be tricked into thinking that the image actually hung in black and white, and depicted a scene from centuries ago. The image acts as a subtle reminder of Henson’s deft comprehension of colour density and shadow, and distracts from the fact that much of the visual dialogue that is to follow would be unlikely to take place at any of the locations pictured.
On either side of Untitled 2 hang Untitled (2015-2016) and Untitled 3 (2015-2016), which both illustrate topless portraits of an androgynous teenage boy. Each as intimate as the other, the portraits show the boy conjuring positions that put in doubt how Henson balances truth and artifice, or whether he means to do so at all. On the one hand, you have a teen whose unmistakeable sense of ease sees him pose in a slew of positions as the show unfolds, with the photographer’s presence felt in the images throughout. But on the other, you have the positions themselves: a product of referential artifice. The only things uniting the scattered visual references, of the boy and the building, appear to be the imperial roots of Eurocentricity, as well as the artist.
As you make your way into the main gallery, and through the rest of the exhibition, Henson’s landscape photographs begin to feel more like placeholders. Or rather, a mere mode of juxtaposition. In many senses, the show’s varied subject matter might be married through colour and composition. But other than setting a transportive tone, the European landscapes – shot across Capri, Naples, Rome and Venice – seem displaced among the adolescent portraits shot at Henson’s Northcote studio. Shown together, they read more like a flex of technical prowess than a show that boasts the reflection and oeuvre one might expect from an artist who represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1995. The difference is so stark that your eye naturally gravitates towards Henson’s human subjects – in particular, his portrait of what appears to be two adolescent boys, holding each other in a tender embrace.
The unframed portrait of the two boys, one held from behind by the other, rushes you back to 2019. You forget the pose and, more significantly, you forget the room. Instantly, you’re reminded of the show’s context and the politics scattered around it. You think about how this image, Untitled 15 (2017-2018), reflects the ways in which sexuality and gender are represented today and, quickly, you begin to feel uplifted – albeit only momentarily. Before long, you become swamped with trepidation over the opaque complexions of the subjects who share the room with you. Each of them milky white, and each of them as culturally singular as the next.
The show emerges at a time in our culture when decorated artists should feel inclined to either comment on or reflect diversity within their work. Whether working with truth, or artifice, a show that recedes behind the guise of creative licence to reflect a world that hinges on Anglo-Saxon purism and Eurocentric iconography is difficult to read as anything other than archaic. And in doing so, it paints a portrait of a world that we no longer recognise. The extremes that bond subjectivity and objectivity with information and aesthetic should urge us all to do better. In the arena of truth, Bill Henson has fallen short by failing to reflect the world as we know it, or even Australia as we know it. He has the power to create the world he wants, derivative of the world he sees. In this case, we can only urge Bill Henson to want more, and see more.
FESTIVAL Dark Mofo
Venues throughout Hobart, June 6-23
CINEMA Sydney Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Sydney, June 5-16
MUSIC Curve Ball
Carriageworks, Sydney, June 8
VISUAL ART Monet: Impression Sunrise
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, June 7–September 1
THEATRE Escaped Alone
Red Stitch, Melbourne, June 2-30
The Spiegeltent, Geelong, until June 23
CULTURE National Celtic Festival
Portarlington, Victoria, June 7-10
MUSIC Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Venues throughout Melbourne, until June 9
FESTIVAL WA Day Festival
Burswood Park, Perth, June 2-3
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "White Anglo lens". Subscribe here.