Described as 'unusual and stunning', Bill Henson's exhibition encourages one to research the man beyond the controversy.
Bill Henson, Untitled 2009/10, inkjet print, ed. 2/5; collection National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2011 (2012.9) © Bill Henson
No doubt you’ve heard the name Bill Henson. Some of you will know him as one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists. Others may be aware of some controversy surrounding the age of his subjects. When asked to review the exhibition I wondered which camp I would fall into. Would I be charmed or confronted? I decided to approach the review, as I do with most things in life, from an objective standpoint.
Arriving at the exhibition the sleek black entrance and clean lettering that simply announced the artist had me at hello. So too the side glimpses of what was to come. Evidently I would be entering a hidden luxurious black enclave. In response my footsteps lightened, and my voice became a shallow whisper, on the minimal times it was called upon. The dramatic, atmospheric styling was captivating.
Each image had been simply framed in black and white. Clever lighting meant the white borders gave off a florescent ethereal glow. The otherwise blackened room gave the impression of images hovering in space. First impressions? It was quite simply a stunning looking exhibition. National Gallery of Victoria curators Susan Van Wyk and Jenepher Duncan should be congratulated for their creativity and restraint.
Installation view Bill Henson at AGWA; Photo Glennys Marsdon
The images, chosen for this exhibition by the artist, were created between 2008 and 2013. The images of museum interiors were the most intriguing. At first glance they appeared to be depicting ancient statues and pictures partially obscured by blurs of light and colour. Closer inspection, however, revealed the light smears to be current day museum patrons standing contemplating the item before them.
The more I looked the more I saw. A stripy blue and white shirt here, a young woman’s face there as she wandered passed. As the ancient and modern time zones collided before me I found myself wondering about the lives of the people, who in turn were thinking about the lives of the people displayed before them. I was in danger of falling down a worm hole.
Untitled 2009/10 inkjet print, ed. 2/5; collection of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2012 (2012.10) © Bill Henson
Each evocative photograph called to be studied rather than simply passed by on the way to the next. Part of the reason for this was the absence of any information plaque next to each photograph. With no explanation the viewer is left to wonder who the people are, and what was happening in the moment.
The dramatic landscapes were equally contemplative, conjuring up moody destinations half witnessed through haze and shadows. The painting like quality had me imagining Henson with a brush in hand rather than camera.
Untitled 2008/09, inkjet print, ed. 5/5; collection of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Gift of William Donald Bowness through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program, 2016 (2016.717) © Bill Henson
So too the emotive portraits and nudes. The subjects emerge out of the shadows, reminiscent of centuries old masters. The tender image of a young boy studying the underside of his foot offered up a mystery, which again is not answered by Henson.
The exhibition is undeniably beautiful. Time slowly disappeared as I considered each of the 23 images. While I arrived at the exhibition with some trepidation, I left with an enormous amount of wonder, appreciation and intrigue. I will definitely be researching the man beyond the controversy and how he crafts photographs into such compelling mysterious works of art.
Untitled 2011/12, inkjet print, ed. 3/5; collection of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Gift of William Donald Bowness through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program, 2016 (2016.731) © Bill Henson
Congratulations must go out to the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) for bringing this exhibition to Perth and to allow the public to view the works free of charge is extremely generous.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
16 September – 11 December 2017
Art Gallery of Western Australia
For more information go to http://www.artgallery.wa.gov.au
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level