Thursday, July 28, 2011


    ambiguous spaces of adolescence

    Photograph by Bill Henson from the 1995-1996 Untitled series
    copyright Bill Henson, 1995
    Australian artist Bill Henson is a passionate and visionary explorer of twilight zones, of the ambiguous spaces that exist between day and night, nature and civilization, youth and adulthood, male and female. His photographs of landscapes at dusk, of the industrial 'no-man's land' that lies on the outskirts of our cities, and of androgynous girls and boys adrift in the nocturnal turmoil of adolescence are painterly tableaux that continue the tradition of romantic literature and painting in our post-industrial age. Were it not for Henson's primary, almost devotional need to elicit empathy for his troubled human subjects, there's a feeling that nothing would prevent the black in his photographs from completely absorbing his attention and extinguishing his work.
    - Dennis Cooper

    Bill Henson is an artist of ferocious integrity, a photographer of the human condition and an experimenter of remarkable skill and conviction. Once the curtain has lifted and we glimpse into his magical world - a distant world of romance and exquisite beauty which the artist seems to somehow have dreamt rather than visited - we find a space veiled in a dim and mystic light, haunted with the ghosts of pretty young ladies and lovely knights, of foreboding buildings and desolate roads, of menacing wooded landscapes with vague but sinister implications. Teenagers seem lost in an obscure sullenness, their darkest angst tinged with melancholy. People and places are juxtaposed between loneliness and desire, as if these youths are drifting mindlessly, perhaps to their destruction.

    -- youth and adolescence --

    Since his first solo exhibition in the 1978, Henson has displayed an unconventional approach to his art. Provocative images are staged in the ambient, waning hours of light in locations that seem to exist somewhere between real and imagined landscapes, procuring a 'mythical world of desperate splendour'. His choice of youth as the underlying subject of his work is founded in a deep fascination for the experience of human growth and the transition between child and adult.

    Photographs by Bill Henson from Untitled Series 2000-2002
    copyright Bill Henson, 2000

    For some, Henson's subject matter can seem disturbing or even sensational. Androgynous models perform sensual poses of almost theatrical proportions, often placed in remote locations so that Henson can artfully spy on them from a distance. A boy and girl embrace, intoxicated, filled with a brooding disaffection that accompanies haunted people in dark pursuits. These youth seem delirious, portrayed by the artist in scenes of great tension. 'The object in my photographs is not always the subject,' Henson says and he challenges the audience to engage with the work in order to understand its true nature. He has said that he feels that he has succeeded if more questions are generated than answered, and believes the strongest criticism comes from those who are uncomfortable with not knowing the answers to the questions posed. Countering his critics have been passionate supporters for Henson's work, including claims that he is 'the greatest photographer in Australia.' The idea that his artwork provokes such strong responses (both positive and negative) does not seem to phase Henson.

    Photograph by Bill Henson from Untitled Series 1995-1996
    copyright Bill Henson, 1995

    The seductive nature of his photographs often overshadows the technical aspects of his work, and the viewer should pay attention to the distinct visual style of his craft. Henson's technique is virtually flawless, offering an unorthodox mix of cinematic and surrealist artistic vernacular that no one can do better. His work conveys a sense that we are somehow experiencing the collective unconscious of his subjects, to be examined without any compromise of complexity, integrity, or richness.

    "These images of surrender but to what forces we do not know: we are merely witnesses to the wreckage, to the way someone stands, head bowed, waiting; to a hand splayed against a naked back; to a man and a woman whose bodies gleam in their embrace with a pale translucent light. This is the meaning of Henson's collage; everything happens at once according to some irrevocable destiny. We may not know what this destiny is, but the resonance of Henson's images tells us it exists."
    -- Ann Lewis and Doug Hall from the Venice Biennale Catalogue (1995)

    Henson has given us a great gift, a bleak, staggering and desolate monument to the human mystery, yet at the same time finding an innate beauty in the process. Henson's work can be wonderfully cryptic, fascinatingly dense. His work dictates its own paradoxes about the world in an inspired effort to record its contradictions -- tender yet violent, seductive yet terrifying - alluring, irresistible images that disturb while drawing the viewer in, curious and defenseless. It is this tension that Henson accomplishes in his work, when the 'air seems charged with something between expectation and anxiety.' Life is always there, to cajole, intrude, and awaken.

    Photograph by Bill Henson from Untitled Series 1995-1996
    copyright Bill Henson, 1995

    -- style and technique --

    Henson is part of the continuing tradition of photographers pushing the boundaries of photography as fine art. To create these dreamscapes, many of his images are captured at twilight when the light is waning. The softness of this light, sensual and moody, resonates in its intensity. The masterful composition of his photographs combined with lush and seductive lighting yield a dark and angry clarity; and he wields the mysteries created by the fragments of Caravaggio or Baudelaire.

    Isolation and dislocation are common themes. Hensonís photographs observe from afar, shrouded in nightfall, not dissimilar to a voyeur witnessing the intimacy between alienated lovers. He shoots with a telephoto lens that keeps him at a distance; and his locations, distant and remote, are possessed with the secluded gloom of urban wastelands, barren landscapes, and 'spellbinding, haunted spaces.'

    Photographs by Bill Henson from Untitled Series 1995-1996
    copyright Bill Henson, 1995

    Consider the scene of late light illuminating a train trestle, bringing out a rich flash of color amid the surrounding gloom. There exists a special warmth and radiance in this evening light, when the last direct rays are about to dissipate over the horizon. This treatment of light is Henson's strength. These spaces seem unreal, places of exquisite beauty.

    As much as there is to admire in Henson's cinematic vision and superb technical craft, his mastery of visual metaphor is equally awe-inspiring. These are forgotten places, neglected areas and urban wastelands barely illuminated by dim streetlights. These bleak spaces of destruction and despair are metaphors for the dark side of the modern human condition, of society adrift beyond repair, resulting in a tension between beauty and the grotesque.

    Photograph by Bill Henson from Untitled Series 1995-1996
    copyright Bill Henson, 1995

    In his recent series "Untitled", Henson appears to have sobered somewhat. Gone is the huge scale, the torn images, the flashes of white. The room is not so dim, the mood less sombre. The subject matter is consistent with past work and includes ethereal images of roads disappearing into the darkness. Roads with no beginning, no end.The work often focuses on images of the human body and most of the time it's naked. Henson's works from 1995-96 are brooding, cinematic in scale and affect, at times erotic in a voluptuous way, self- consciously evocative and alluring, luxurious when viewed at close range and somehow harder and more brittle when viewed from a distance.

    Photograph by Bill Henson from Untitled Series 1983-84
    copyright Bill Henson, 1983

    Periods of time and states of decay are juxtaposed in his series of 1983-84, in which Henson contrasts Baroque architecture with the tragic figure of teenage junkies, a solemn reminder of the waste and loss of innocence suffered by many youth in contemporary society. The subjects are still detached from the viewer. Their gaze remains averted or they stare blankly, unseeing, oblivious in their own personal drama. This lack of emotional engagement, surprisingly, offers a deep level of intimacy. It is not a connection with the subject, however, but rather a deep level of empathy, a sense of familiarity, of knowing.

    In the late 1980s the format of Henson's work changed dramatically. He began to work on a much larger scale, manipulating the images and creating huge collages. Pieces are torn from the finished photograph and disparate images, collected over time, are combined. Cityscapes, neon lights, urban landscapes were given the sense of foreboding found indeserted areas of the city late at night. In later works pieces are cut from the image (rather than torn) and carefully repositioned and affixed with black tape. The white pieces of photographic paper contrast with the darkness of the image resulting in an intensely shattered and provocative body. Jagged windows are created, opening possibilities to the world beyond. Time is lost, space distorted, tension created. The disquieting nature of this work prevents the viewer from falling into a false sense of complacency, from presuming to understand. Active participation and questioning are paramount to the impact and success of this work.

    Photograph by Bill Henson from Untitled Series 1995-1996
    copyright Bill Henson, 1995

    In his latest series, still called "Untitled", Henson appears to have sobered somewhat. Gone is the huge scale, the torn images, the flashes of white. The room is not so dim, the mood less sombre. The subject matter is consistent with past work and includes ethereal images of roads disappearing into the darkness. Roads with no beginning, no end.

    Henson's work has always had a sultry feel. Even the "crowd" images from 1979 are softly toned, composed as though Henson's camera is moving across a sea of faces and bodies, telephoto lens fixed, so that each shot appears to bear the trace and slight blur of movement at extreme close range. His untitled (and often reproduced) series from 1977 depicts a slim naked adolescent boy standing or reclined, looking asleep or dead. Here Henson presents a body that is as tangible as the softness of this boy's skin, and as ephemeral as his shadowy surrounds. The softness of Henson's photos seems to allow the intense sexual nature of his subjects rather than create it. The realness of a naked pubescent girl with the mere suggestion of pubic hair, or an adolescent boy in shadowy contraposto with large hands and tumescent penis, is constantly tugged away from us into the realm of memory or imagination. In the 1995-96 works, apparently explicit sexual images generate abstract relationships in the dreamscape that Henson creates. The image of a couple fucking almost doesn't even register on the brain. The naked torso of a girl adjacent to the open legs of a naked boy refuses to coalesce into a "complete" image; the boy's torso is almost like the girl's memory image, or her body a fantasy image of his. Henson's pictures seem mostly either pre-coital or post-coital. The calmness that pervades them is not so much foreboding as lingering, and perhaps that's where the seduction lies.

    -- biography --

    Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1955, Bill Henson's photographs have been seen in major international exhibitions and survey shows over the past 25 years. Venues include the BibliothËque Nationale in Paris, MusÈe d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna, the Venice Biennale, most Australian museums, and gallery shows in the United States. Henson lives and works in Sydney.

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