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.

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