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  • Oct 04, 2012

Bill Henson’s nudes at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

BILL HENSON, Untitled #2, 2011, archival inkjet pigment print, 127 X 180 cm. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Bill Henson’s latest exhibition at Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, featuring 18 photographs (all taken between 2010 and 2011) of predominantly young boys and a few female nudes, is a far cry from his controversial 2008 exhibition at the same gallery. Four years ago, the inclusion of works depicting a naked pubescent girl brought about public and media accusations of pedophilia and led to the forced closing of the exhibition by police.

The current exhibition is risk free in comparison and suggests that Henson has moderated his vision with an eye to public mores. While the subject matter in these new works remains the same—naked boys and girls posed in deep chiaroscuro shadows—the models are neither lascivious nor sexual.

Henson’s androgynous boys, wearing expressions of ennui, pose in the warm embrace of the photographer’s trademark theatrical lighting. The three female nudes in Untitled 2 (2011), Untitled 7 (2010) and Untitled 15 (2010), lying either prostrate or supine, are not pubescent girls as before, but curvaceous women. Despite the photographs’ lush sensuality, there is nothing here to offend the guardians of public morality.

Henson’s work from 2008 and earlier often featured young men and women posing together as though they were exploring their own insipient sexuality. Their bodies were smeared with dirt and appeared grubby as they cavorted in dark and somber land- and cityscapes.

Installation view of "Bill Henson" at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, 2012. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.

The innocence that Henson once captured so well has deserted him in these new works, however. The female nudes have lost their human dimension and now appear murky, issuing succubus-like from deep shadow into a pixilated haze. While the boys, with flesh that seems brushed by an embalmer’s art, inhabit a world confined by the deep shadows within the artist’s studio, seemingly trapped in an interregnum between childhood and young adulthood.

The boys and women alike are not only stripped of their clothes, but their identities as well. They have simply become vehicles used by Henson in his pursuit of a refined Platonic aesthetic.

These new photographs by Henson have sunk into a tortuous and protracted artifice. This is compounded by the use of digital inkjet printing. Henson first began making digital prints in 2010, more due to necessity than design—the large photographic printing paper on which he had previously made his C-type prints was no longer available. However, the use of digital printing technology requires a degree of computer enhancement, which, while not necessarily being a bad thing, carries a heavy responsibility. Using proprietary software such as Adobe Photoshop, it is very easy to over-enhance an image when one is dealing with dark shadows and low level lighting as Henson does. The effect is hazy, pixilated images. Henson it seems has fallen into this trap. He told ArtAsiaPacific in a recent email exchange that he ”manipulates the print to create an infinite range of effects.” While it is hard to gauge the level of such manipulation, it has without doubt affected the visual clarity of the artist’s work whether deliberate or not.

Since 2008, Henson has walked a careful and measured line, but his work suffers for it. His search for the truth about which he spoke so eloquently at the 2010 Melbourne Art Foundation Lecture—an implicit response to the scandal surrounding his 2008 show—somehow seems to elude him now. These latest photographs have become too artificial and ultimately miss their mark, sinking into repetition and ludicrous indulgence.

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