September 2013

Arts & Letters

Bill Henson's Cloud Landscapes

By Patrick Hartigan

Bill Henson’s Cloud Landscapes presents a pleasingly weighted and scaled body of photographs spanning the artist’s long career. There is a sense of knowledge and patience in these works – in their skill of revealing while leaving much unsaid. The power of these classical, nocturnal pictures is in their capacity to draw back at the moment they might otherwise plunge into cliché. In the hands of a less skilled photographer, Henson’s images, particularly the figureless examples, might have the cheaply ominous feel of a TV murder mystery.

The perpetual drama of Henson’s work, with its fleshy unease, is twined around the grand history of Western imagery: approaching the photographs, hung high on the walls, I expected the sound of creaking parquetry floors. You sense the Venetians here: Giorgione, Tintoretto and Titian. It’s also hard not to think of Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793) in the foregrounded arm of the figure in Untitled (2007/08). But while offering these threads, the images taken as a whole can’t be tied to a single chapter in art history. Though to a lesser extent than the work of the phantom painters these images echo, Henson’s photographs demand the viewer’s presence; to view them in a catalogue would summarise their drama while robbing them of their subtlety and richness.

The figures – neither heroes nor victims but seemingly always falling – emerge from the darkness of a landscape or, in the Paris Opera series, as extensions of a painting, before disappearing, swallowed by the shadowy depths.

The reflections of the other works in the glass of the frames was a detraction, putting chiaroscuro just out of reach. But the alternative, seeing the photographs as large hanging sheets of paper, might well have been the poorer option. Perhaps the frames help place the images closer to the history with which they are so at home.

The artist’s love of music is stated in the introduction to the exhibition. The slow, disconcerting reveries of Gustav Mahler came to me while sitting among these works. That composer’s house is the subject of the smallest work in the exhibition and, from its corner, it breathes an autumnal melancholy into the room.

Patrick Hartigan
Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

September 2013

From the front page

Image of chair of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission and former Fortescue Metals chief executive Neville Power

Building back better?

The government’s pandemic response is taking a familiar shape

Photograph of Malcolm Turnbull

Surrounded by pygmies: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘A Bigger Picture’

The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

An unavoidable recession

The pandemic got us in, the treasurer must get us out

Child's illustration

The screens that ate school

What do we really know about the growing presence of Google, Apple, Microsoft and more in the education system?


In This Issue

Catherine Titasey’s ‘My Island Homicide’

Margaret Atwood's 'MaddAddam'

A cassowary visits Jan Shang’s backyard in Innisfail, Queensland. © Eddie Safarik / Newspix

Jim Sterba’s 'Nature Wars'

Why Australia hates asylum seekers

Our governments and press have demonised boat people for 15 years. Organisations like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre worry they’re fighting a losing battle.


More in Arts & Letters

Photograph of Malcolm Turnbull

Surrounded by pygmies: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘A Bigger Picture’

The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

Still from ‘The Assistant’

Her too: ‘The Assistant’

Melbourne-born, New York–based filmmaker Kitty Green’s powerfully underplayed portrait of Hollywood’s abusive culture

Photograph of Dua Lipa

Snap-back: Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’

The British singer’s serendipitous album delivers shining pop with a reigning attitude of fortitude

Still from ‘The Platform’

Consolations in isolation: ‘The Platform’ and ‘Free in Deed’

What is the future of cinema without cinemas?


More in Noted

Cover of ‘The Trials of Portnoy’

‘The Trials of Portnoy’ by Patrick Mullins

The finely detailed story of the legal fight in Australia against the censorship of Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’

Cover of ‘The End of October’

‘The End of October’ by Lawrence Wright

A ‘New Yorker’ journalist’s eerily prescient novel about public-health officials fighting a runaway pandemic

Cover of ‘Fathoms’

‘Fathoms: The World in the Whale’ by Rebecca Giggs

The Australian writer’s lyrical consideration of our relationship with whales is a new and ambitious kind of nature writing

Cover of ‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’

‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’ by Cho Nam-Joo (trans. Jamie Chang)

The coldly brilliant, bestselling South Korean novel describing the ambient harassment and discrimination experienced by women globally


Read on

Image of Australians queuing at Centrelink in Brisbane.

Moral bankruptcy

Robodebt stemmed from the false ideological division between the deserving and undeserving poor, but the government still clings to moralistic language

Image of Gough Whitlam in October 1975

It’s about time

The High Court’s landmark ruling on the ‘Palace Papers’ is a win for Australian social democracy

Image of Robyn Davidson

Something mythic

For Robyn Davidson, her acclaimed memoir ‘Tracks’ was an act of freedom whose reception hemmed her in

COVID-19 versus human rights

The virus is the latest excuse for governments to slash and burn the individual rights of prisoners


×
×