How fleeting and fickle are the excitements generated by the media. In 2008 it seemed as though Australian civilisation was on the brink of disaster because Bill Henson had exhibited photographs of nude teenagers. It made little difference that he had been doing this for almost thirty years already, with the works being shown in retrospectives at the state galleries in Sydney and Melbourne. The controversy raged for weeks, dominating letters pages and talk-back radio slots.
Last week the print and electronic media could barely contain its boredom – in some cases, irritation – with the inoffensive nature of Henson’s latest exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.
It seems that Henson has found a way to genuinely offend all those people who purported to feel such moral indignation last time around. He has put together a collection of serenely beautiful photographs of landscapes, crumbling fragments of the ancient world, and teenagers, all enveloped in his trademark inky darkness. The fact that the figures reveal little more than a face, a shoulder or an elbow is the really offensive thing. “How dare he?” shriek his detractors. “How could he do this to us? Just when we were waiting for another opportunity to display our deep concern for children!”
Even some of Henson’s admirers have expressed disappointment, as if he should have exhibited a whole room of naked rug rats, thumbing his nose to the enemy. This might have been expected from a small minority of artists who delight in offending their audiences, but Henson is not of that persuasion. He is committed to the work rather than the publicity stunt.
One may read his intention from the image on the invitation card. In 2008 he gave us the slender form of a teenage girl, her bare torso suspended between darkness and light. This time he presents a piece of classical statuary, a draped figure lacking head and hands. The erotic overtones are implicit in the finely carved, diaphanous robe that clings to the body.
The photograph celebrates the age-old, primal power of Eros that has survived the ravages of time. In many ways it is a more defiantly sexualized image that last year’s tremulous adolescent – a picture that radiated vulnerability and uncertainty. For while Eros may be eternal, that moment of transition between childhood and adulthood is painfully brief. In these years sexuality has a fearful, mysterious power that can rarely be recaptured in later life. One’s very personality seems to hang in the balance as this crucial period is negotiated.
Last year Henson opted for an image that signaled his interest in these liminal states, universal to human experience. This time he has chosen a picture that symbolises the resilience of art. Soiled, broken and disfigured, the statue still communicates its Dionysian message to the viewer. This is Henson’s answer to the self-appointed guardians of public morality: ‘Art is long, headlines are short.’
Although the figures in this show are handled with discretion, the landscapes have rarely been more spectacular. There are images of rocky outcrops, waterfalls captured in a blaze of light, monoliths rising from the ocean. The mood is late Romantic, reminiscent of iconic paintings such as Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, which exists in four versions, from 1880-88. It is not the least bit far-fetched to compare Henson with Symbolists such as Böcklin, or – in his handling of the figure – with Caravaggio. More than any other photographer I can name, he sees the world through the eyes of a painter of the pre-modernist era.
Henson uses landscape as what T.S.Eliot called “an objective correlative” of a particular emotion. In other words, using something outside oneself to express a personal feeling. His brooding, crepuscular images are as charged as a symphony by one of the great German Romantics. Objectively, our own lives are insignificant in the face of Nature, but we can’t help seeing our private dramas reflected in the landscape. A vision of the sea, the mountains, the forest or the desert speaks directly to our inner selves in a manner that varies with each personality. What is exhilarating to one person may be terrifying to another; what one finds comforting, the next finds claustrophobic.
With Henson’s landscapes our choices are strictly limited. There are no sunny days at the beach or picture-postcard views of cherry blossoms in spring. This is a world of darkness that pushes us towards melancholy introspection. Looking at these pictures the viewer might imagine him or herself the last person left on earth. There are no figures and no distractions. The light is so subdued that the images cannot be absorbed at a glance – they require a little time and concentration.
In recent years Henson has exhibited landscapes and figures in a contrapuntal relationship. Each strand is completely distinct, but on the walls of the gallery the two themes are united in a complex, theatrical presentation. This is exactly the case in the current exhibition. Only the shallow and the thrill-seekers need feel disappointed.
The low-key way this exhibition has been received makes the events of 2008 seem like a bad dream. In retrospect, it casts more light on Henson’s antagonists than it does on the artist himself. For instance, when the Prime Minister went out of his way to denounce the “revolting” nature of the work, he destroyed his own credibility with an arts community he had already wooed and won.
To say Mr. Rudd is a populist is a truism, but there are both positive and negative sides to this trait. The positive side was the feel-good charade of the “2020 Summit”, which made everyone imagine we had a leader who cared about the future and about the arts. The negative came out in the Henson comments, based on no more than a peek at a handful of snapshots. It is hard to believe these responses were spontaneous, but this hardly matters as they were stubbornly repeated. The PM attached himself to a ‘popular’ view, fed by the megaphone of the media and showed no willingness to consider a more nuanced approach. In a flash he alienated an arts community that has been a surprisingly powerful support group for Labor leaders such as Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating.
The arts crowd is often treated poorly by the ALP because the party takes its support for granted. A truly effective arts lobby needs to be beyond party politics, recognising that politicians from both sides of the house can be equally complacent in their attitudes towards the arts.
There are many who believe the only art that matters is inherently political. These zealots, unfortunately, are often the ones who end up as curators, critics and policy advisors. To blandly accept this view would be to deny the power of William Robinson’s landscapes recently shown at Australian Galleries; Joe Furlonger’s impressive Glasshouse Mountains paintings at the Ray Hughes Gallery, (until 19 May); or Utopia’s current survey of abstract pictures by David Aspden.
Aspden (1935-2005) was an irascible but highly talented artist who did much to undermine his own career with his bad temper and fondness for the bottle. None of this is evident in the works on display at Utopia, which span the period from 1974 to 2002. These paintings are extraordinarily lyrical, showing a mastery of colour and tone. The subtitle of the show: Landscape into music, is perfectly chosen. There are many suggestions of landscape in these paintings, but the associations with music are unmistakeable.
Aspden constructs a picture in the same manner that a composer might put together a musical composition. Each patch of colour is a distinct note; the notes form chords, which in turn create harmonies. Each painting has its own mood, vitally dependent on the interplay of colours. A piece such as Garden II (1988) is a brilliant example of this technique.
Aspden’s paintings are strong arguments for abstract painting as an inherently meaningful activity. They are so full of life it seems unthinkable they could ever be written off as mere decorations. At their best, they could be put alongside the works of American Abstract Expressionists such as De Kooning and Motherwell, and not be found wanting. Woman Red Hair III (1983) would sit comfortably alongside these artists on the walls of any museum in the United States. Minimal torn paper collages such as Waterside VIII (1979) or Coast V (1978) demonstrate a sublime creative confidence.
One of the things that may have played on Aspden’s mind was the sense that his work was being overlooked by collectors and curators who saw abstract painting as yesterday’s style. Today, we can see that his pictures have survived, and look fresher than almost anything painted in that dismal era called Postmodernism that soured the 1980s. This show is not the kind of thing that makes headlines, it doesn’t shock or offend, but for many viewers it will reaffirm why art matters.
Bill Hensen, Robyn Oxley9, 6 May-5 June, 2010
David Aspden, Landscape into Music, Utopia Art Sydney, 1-22 May, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 15, 2010