Bill Henson

Tenderness is at the centre of the portraiture and landscape works that comprise Bill Henson’s solo show at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. The photographer ‘want[s] to hang onto the tender, breathing, proximate intimacy’ between his subjects in an exhibition that dissolves generic boundaries, likening gesture to architectural structure, and people to pyramids.

In his first Sydney solo show in seven years, Bill Henson gives us a series of tender portraits of young people, mostly set within a dark, smooth space that acts as a kind of anti-setting. There is something like tissue paper about the texture of the subjects’ flesh in these monumental pictures. Subtly variegated in colour – articulating the blue of the veins, the red of flushed cheeks, the green that shows up in skin if we attend to it for long enough – there is a tension in these portraits between liveliness and mortality. Alive though we know they are, it’s easy to imagine the subjects we’re looking at are lifeless; they simultaneously float and sink in the inky space of the pictures like a series of Ophelias. It might be a stretch to claim the image of Ophelia as an influence, though. Henson insists that even he can’t trace his influences too accurately. When reflecting on what inspired the photographs in this show, he observes that ‘we’re taking in so much information all the time. The extent to which you walk to your local IGA for a carton of milk and it’s influencing you, and the extent to which you’re reading Thomas Mann and listening to Mozart and it’s influencing you, is such a mysterious amalgam. I could give you a list of what I’m reading, what I’m listening to, and it wouldn’t really explain it.’

The portraits, here are woven almost one for one across the gallery walls with a series of landscape pieces, which are concerned with ancient architectural structures and geographical formations. One might wonder what these two apparently disparate bodies of work have to do with each other. We might associate the portraits with tenderness, with delicacy, and with closeness, while thinking of the landscapes as more impersonal, impenetrable, or simply as having less emotion to communicate. Henson, it seems, sees this as a false distinction.

‘I never presume to understand what’s going on in the minds of my subjects,’ he says. We normally think about the knowability or unknowability of others in terms of the way we communicate with them through language. In an affirming view, we have Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘forms of life,’ which asks us to give ourselves credit for our ability to sufficiently know each other through words, suggesting that when we share language conventions, we also feel as if we share ‘the natural conditions of our lives.’[1] For Henson, however, the tangle of intimacy and indeterminacy – that is, the way we both know and fail to know those who are most significant to us – occurs not so much in language, but in gesture. It’s in this haptic space that human subjects become like architectural ones. Henson explains, ‘I’m not trying to make a portrait; they’re anti-portraits. I’m universalising and abstracting the humanity, rather than getting at any portrayal of an individual. Ultimately, what I’m trying to work toward is hanging on to that proximal tenderness and simultaneously producing something that is infinitely distant, unknowable, unassailable, like the great pyramids.’ Just as gestural cues point towards an elusive meaning, or a story, so too for Henson do the structures of great architecture. Indeed, we can’t presume to know what’s going on in the minds of the teenagers who embrace each other in his portraits any more than we can presume to know all the secrets of the sacred spaces in his landscapes. In this way, Henson’s ‘anti-portraits’ and his landscapes merge almost into one genre; a singular exploration of intimacy and finitude that occurs completely wordlessly.

‘That’s why I believe it’s possible to make pictures where there is an incredible intimacy, without compromising the subject,’ the artist says. ‘Even though they’re there, even though you can see all this detail of the skin, there’s an unbridgeable gap, and that’s the space where people’s imaginations enter in: who is this, where is this, what does this mean?’ Attentive always to the materiality of his work, and revelling in the manipulable surfaces of skin and stone alike, Henson brings us a show that pushes the boundaries of our ability to know what we’re looking at – in more ways than one.

[1] Toil Moi, ‘Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies After Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell’ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 47

Bill Henson
17 May – 19 June 2019
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney


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