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

2009 forever

Blame the Coalition, not the Greens, for Australia’s decade of climate dysfunction

Cover of ‘The Testaments’

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”

Image from ‘The Report’

Interrogating the interrogators: ‘The Report’

This tale of the investigation into CIA torture during the War on Terror places too much faith in government procedure

Image of police station in Alice Springs with red handprints on wall

What really happened at Yuendumu?

The promised inquiries must answer the biggest questions raised by the police shooting of an Aboriginal man


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

Image of Jia Tolentino

Radical ambiguity: Jia Tolentino, Rachel Cusk and Leslie Jamison

The essay collections ‘Trick Mirror’, ‘Coventry’ and ‘Make It Scream, Make It Burn’ offer doubt and paradoxical thinking in the face of algorithmic perfectionism

Image of Archie Roach

A way home: Archie Roach

The writer of ‘Took the Children Away’ delivers a memoir of his Stolen Generations childhood and an album of formative songs

Image from ‘The Irishman’

Late style: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’

Reuniting with De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, the acclaimed director has delivered less of a Mob film than a morality play

Still from Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

No one’s laughing now: Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

A gripping psychological study of psychosis offers a surprising change of pace in the superhero genre


More in Noted

Image of ‘Wild River, Florida’

‘Civilization: The Way We Live Now’

The beautiful photographs of often grim subjects in NGV Australia’s exhibition raise questions over the medium’s power to critique

Cover of ‘The Testaments’

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”

Cover of ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’

‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ by Deborah Levy

The British author experiments with a narrative structure that collapses past and present

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age


Read on

Image from ‘The Report’

Interrogating the interrogators: ‘The Report’

This tale of the investigation into CIA torture during the War on Terror places too much faith in government procedure

Image of police station in Alice Springs with red handprints on wall

What really happened at Yuendumu?

The promised inquiries must answer the biggest questions raised by the police shooting of an Aboriginal man

You could drive a person crazy: Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are at their career best in this bittersweet tale of divorce

Blockade tactics

Inside the 2019 IMARC protests


×
×