“What is that face, breaking our hearts, but a momentary configuration of molecules taking form and changing form and losing form, as night falls.”
— Peter Scheldahl, 1989
There is something fragile in Bill Henson’s art, something that implies loss even as it offers substance. Perhaps it’s the way he works with images of age, contrasting the faces of child and adult. Perhaps it’s the way he uses adolescents, with their bodies snagged between youth and maturity.
Perhaps, instead, it’s in his use of light. And in his use of dark.
It is — perhaps — all these things, & it is the very fact he manages to straddle this tension of opposites that gives his art a sense both of stillness and movement. He works in ambiguities & the spaces in-between. He can make crowd scenes look intimate and intimate scenes look oddly impersonal. He can give still moments a sense of drama and suspense, and yet despite the easy fluidity of his images, there is a weightiness there. As though fate or history is pressing down.
“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
Henson apparently spent 5 weeks working full-time at the Art Gallery of NSW to create this latest exhibition, & what I found at least as interesting as the art was the way he presented it. He built shapes with the frames across the wall. He modified the gallery lights one by one so that they spotlighted parts of the photos, creating shadow and glare alternately. The result was one of energy. I wanted to stand still to drink in his beautiful images, but reflections in the glass meant I had to move back & forth, only ever seeing the picture incompletely. It was a kind of meta-art, forcing me to interact with the strangers in the photos.
I found a lot to like in the exhibition. Henson’s preoccupations parallel my own: light & dark, tragedy & beauty, momentariness, narrative, contrast.
But the thing that has really stuck in my head is not Henson’s tragic, beautiful portraits where people seem forever frozen in a moment before they speak. Nor is it his colourful and empty landscapes. It is the fact his work is apparently not sexual.
Henson uses a lot of naked teenagers in his work; he also uses the faces of dark-haired women caught in a frown or a semblance of tragedy, of concern. It’s beautiful, but it’s also disturbing to realise how beautiful they are. What is the strange attractiveness of tragedy?
In the lecture beforehand, Peter Craven (Literary Light and Dark) said he found it “preposterous” that Henson has been accused of sexual imagery, simply because he uses nudity & — in particular — nude teenagers. Craven wanted to know whether our society had become so sexualised that nudity had this instant, almost dismissive, interpretation.
What I want to know is: is it possible that Henson, a modern artist, could be so out of touch with the society that views his art he wouldn’t know about our preposterous sexual obsessions? Could Henson build his beautiful, bruised images without pausing to wonder what his audience might make of the suggestive poses of nudes on canvases? Could Henson, creating art, today, in this world, not reference our apparent over-sexualisations?
Even if he means his art to ridicule us, to make light of us, to point out our flaws. Even if he thinks the rest of us — or the majority of us — are crazy for our so-called sexual obsessiveness. Even then, can he build art in this world that is immune to that? Can art be made in a vacuum?
Can Henson, with his provocative images of naked teenagers reclining or embracing in idealised, mythologised landscapes, claim that sex is not informing his art in some way?
I doubt he is so out-of-touch as all that.
But I am curious as to what he does mean, and what he thinks of fate, and beauty, and moments. And darkness. And art.
Nietzsche concurred that life is tragic, but thought that this should not preclude acceptance of the tragic with joyous affirmation, the full realization of which is art. Art confronts the terrors of the universe and is therefore only for the strong. Art can transform any experience into beauty, and by so doing transforms its horrors in such a way that they may be contemplated with enjoyment.
Like I say, I’ve got a lot of questions. I’m not so good on the answers.
It’s all in the journey.