Bill Henson: Finding Focus - Art Collector

Issue 62, October - December 2012

Bill Henson has taken time to find his feet following the media firestorm that erupted over his work in 2008. John McDonald asks whether his latest exhibition, produced after a period of intense and solitary focus, finally represents a return to normal transmission.

Since the upheavals of 2008 a new Bill Henson exhibition is always an event, generating a sense of expectation most artists would relish as they struggle to attract a small mention in the newspapers. There are even artists who have actively cultivated notoriety. This is not, however, the way Henson thinks. Among Australian artists there is nobody more devoted to his work and less enamoured with scandal and publicity.

Henson’s attitude towards this kind of attention is unequivocal: “Some people decide they want to be controversial. I don’t know who in their right mind could be so stupid.”

Less excited by a headline than by some fleeting effect of light and shadow, Henson would sooner be in his darkroom than at the most glamorous party. It is ironic that he has become a media magnet for all the wrong reasons. To recap briefly, a dimly-lit photograph of a naked adolescent on the invitation card of Henson’s 2008 show at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery generated a media firestorm.

It became a textbook case of moral panic. To put the absurdity of this episode into perspective, only a few years before, Henson’s work had been the subject of the largest retrospective ever devoted to an Australian photographer, which was staged at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria. The exhibition had broken all records and received no complaints, even though many pictures were more confronting than anything shown at Roslyn Oxley’s gallery.

When Henson’s next show at Oxley’s in 2010 was filled with landscapes, the disappointment was palpable. The artist had not played the game by provoking his detractors. Like Garbo, he was announcing that he’d prefer to be left alone. In relation to exhibitions in general, Henson says he feels like Glenn Gould, being vitally interested making the sounds, but concerned the performance gets in the way.

In his most recent show, at Melbourne’s Tolarno Galleries in 2011, the figures were back, but this time the bonfire failed to ignite. It seemed that the crisis was over and normal service had been resumed. Yet we may only be able to say this with confidence after Henson’s new show with Roslyn Oxley has stood the test of another media inquisition.

So what can we expect from this exhibition? “I think it will focus more on the body, and less on landscape,” says Henson. “There’ll be fragments of landscape, of course, but I never really work towards a show. I allow pictures to accumulate until they reach a critical mass and then go with my feelings. I’ve done a rough plan for the installation here in the studio and I’m just going to take pieces from it and float them on the gallery walls.”

Henson says he has been having such a good time in the studio lately he has felt little inclination to do anything else. “I haven’t been overseas since last year, in fact I’ve hardly been out of the building. The drawbridge has been up since before last Christmas.”

It hasn’t been a completely solitary business. Part of the excitement comes from working with models, both old and new. A typical relationship with a model may extend over several years. “It’s a pretty special occasion,” he says, “when you come across a new person who’s suitable.”

Henson says he hardly registers the difference between male and female any more. “You’re struck by a face in the street. Something about him or her recommends itself to you without you realising. It’s the humanity of their presence and their gestures; it’s an overall feeling. Then later you’re at home thinking ‘that person was really interesting’.”

After all the drama of the past few years, he is determined not to be distracted from his work and has had no difficulty in finding new models. “People quickly work out for themselves if they’re interested or not,” he says. “They’re capable of following their own intuition and doing a bit of research. All anyone has to do nowadays is tap into Google and they’ll be across my public career pretty comprehensively.”

Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney exhibits Bill Henson’s new work until 13 October 2012.

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