Thursday, May 27, 2004

Tolarno Galleries: Bill Henson

Bill Henson. Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, until June 26.

It's thirty years this winter since Bill Henson first exhibited in a group show at the Ewing and George Paton Galleries in Melbourne; thirty years since Henson turned his back on two of the three primary colours and blue-shifted the world.

Even his early work in black and white is leeched of sunlight and red blood. Using filters, underexposure and overdevelopment, Henson's monochrome photographs are contrasty and thick. Cadaverous almost. Beyond the ravages of time.

It's odd that the photographer should be presumed to be obsessed with the pornography of youth -- with licentiousness and passion -- when he is so obviously fascinated with cyan: the colour of the skin in the moment between the last pulse of oxygenated blood through the arteries and the flat-line of brain death.

Henson photographs adolescence precisely because of its obliviousness -- its apparent imperviousness -- to mortality. He doesn't see the skull beneath the skin so much as the marble waxiness of flesh in the cool light of night.

Henson doesn't idolise youth, by any means, but he has an uncanny ability to isolate and capture something angelic, something numinous, in his young subjects. Think of the cherubic little girl (with her supernaturally red lips) about to breathe into the ear of an oh-so-mortal man in the Paris Opera series, circa 1990.

In Henson's theatrical (but oddly passionless) Purgatorio, sleep is a rehearsal for death. Here, in this largely unseen set of images, sleep is also a rich -- and grand -- metaphor. But for what?

In Cat. #6 (Untitled 1998/1999, CB/KMC SH 86 N 27A), we are captivated by the tension between the girl's complete vulnerability (asleep in her ratty, moth-eaten, threadbare singlet, exposed to the elements) and her absolute self-possession.

In the gloom in the upper right of the frame, lurks the spectral image of a boy, watching her intently. He's hardly present, bony and insubstantial. Yet he is as startlingly alien as a biomorphic study by American sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

His role, too, is chillingly ambiguous. Is he a guardian angel protecting the sleeping girl or a vulture about to swoop in? Is she unthreatened or merely unaware of any threat?

From a distance, our eye is drawn to the brightest areas: to the glow of the girl's upper thigh and the horizontal wave of life-light in the centre. Up close, it is a constellation of tiny pearl studs in the girl's right earlobe that begs to be decoded.

From the same series, Cat. #4 (Untitled 1998/1999, CB/KMC SH 111 N 34A) is a fascinating variation on another of Henson's great themes: the transubstantiation that comes through moments of complete openness. In the last five or six years, Henson has captured moments of astounding intimacy; made them visible. And this is his great skill. His unique skill... night vision.

Ten of the eleven images in this exhibition are available in editions of five, at $14,000 apiece unframed. The three metre by 1.85 metre one-off work, Cat. #2 (Untitled 1995/1996), previously exhibited at the 1996 Melbourne Festival, has a price tag of a cool $250,000.

This review was published in the May 29-30 2004 edition of the Australian Financial Review.