This has nothing to do with the AGNSW’s signage or the directions I was given by their ever-helpful staff. It’s not them, it’s me – I just seem to have trouble with orientation: maps, signs, right, left, grids, logic . I can’t relate and therefore spend a lot of the time lost.
So it was such a pleasure, when I finally found it, to immerse myself in the cool miasma of Henson’s Cloud Landscapes in the AGNSW’s Photography Gallery. No grids or maps here, no harshly lit intersections and arid timetables: Henson’s world is one of shadows, moonlit semi-light and milky uncertainties.
The fourteen-picture exhibition shows recent works from the Gallery’s own collection as well as several from Henson’s Paris Opera Project of the early 1990s and his Mahler series (begun in 1976 and still ongoing).
Henson said in 2004: “In some respects not even being able to see the whole structure is partly what the work is about – the way in which things go missing in the shadows. Shadows can animate the speculative capacity in the viewer in a way that highlights can’t.”
Meticulously lit, shot and hand printed by Henson himself, each work is a thing of sublimely mysterious beauty, a pool of delicious inky darks and moonlit highlights, a cool world of almost bloodless eroticism, if such a thing can be.
That these works span 30 years is amazing: the consistency of vision, the technical mastery and the opaque perfectionism is staggering. Henson has seamlessly transferred his printing methods from analogue recently to digital – I defy anyone to see any change at all in the soft grain and perfectly held vignettes of the pictures.
There are clouds and old stone, foggy trees and deep voids of abstract dark. There are also beautiful images of faces, bodies, curves of white flesh and crimson-mauve lips. An image (called, as they all are, Untitled) of young people, naked, embracing in a Greek glade by a car wreck – a tattooed Adonis hugs his tough-looking Venus – call to mind the ugly episode in 2008 where Henson was accused of creating paedophilic images. Everyone, from the then (and now!) Prime Minister Kevin Rudd down, weighed in with their tut-tuts and finger-pointing until the whole grubby beat-up blew over and they all moved on to the next outrage, whatever that was.
Henson’s work may involve the flesh but it is the darks between that he is really photographing. These fourteen pictures are works of rare and visionary beauty, works whose shadows and half-darks will take the viewer to places of meditation and reverie. It is an experience not to be missed.
Bill Henson Cloud Landscapes runs at the AGNSW until September 22.