Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Bill Henson

            There is an overwhelming photograph hanging in the Australian national gallery, measuring 1.5m by 1.5m. The image is called ‘Untitled, the Paris Opera Project, 1991’ and is characterized by the startling contrast articulated through the use of chiaroscuro. This projects a haunting feeling reminiscent of a Caravaggio painting. A young girl leans over to whisper into the ear of an elderly gentleman dressed in tails at the opera; it is a Degas-style moment prompting the audience to enquire about the relationship between the two subjects. The artist, Bill Henson, comments on this technique by explaining how “In every form of art, you really want the experience of the images to transcend the medium, for the medium to disappear into the greater experience of viewing the work. So that you forget you are looking at a painting, or a photograph.” (Bill Henson, ART MONTHLY AUSTRALIA, July 1996, pp 4-7)

Bill Henson is an Australian contemporary art photographer born in Melbourne in the 1950’s. He put on his first exhibition at the national gallery of Victoria when he was 19. His work is characterized by a strong application of chiaroscuro – echoing the composition and emotion of the old masters, specifically Caravaggio and other artists of the baroque persuasion. Conceptually however, Henson strives to incorporate raw and candid emotion in his work. These concepts that Henson plays with are expressed through his subject matter, most usually adolescent models. He comments on this controversial subject matter by saying that is is simply “the best and most effective way of expressing ideas about humanity and vulnerability.”

 However, Henson also branches into another subject matter that he couples with his nude photographs; land and city/town-scapes. He believes that there is silent presence in the forces of nature and rural cityscapes that can make you feel and experience emotion in a way that portraiture cannot. For example, In the above photograph, “Untitled #8”, 2008, is a photograph of a boy around 9/10, standing with his back towards the viewer and his head turned to the right. His body is outlined by finite strokes of light that structure the figure. His pose illustrates a defensive and stubborn attitude and his head is tilted and his focus lies heavily on something, but the black background signifies that his vision is set on something unknown or sinister. This photograph, coupled with “Untitled #22”, 2008, of a road passing through two poles of a gate, provides a more complete understanding of what is occurring with the figure. This diptych creates the sense that the subject is looking ahead as to what’s to come, but with alertness as to what preceded him. The road winds into dark issuing the sense that the subject’s path still holds mystery. The fact that Henson is able to paint such a comprehensive scene from two supposedly polar subject matters is why I find the artist so fascinating.

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