Bill Henson

Bill Henson’s large new photographs are landscapes of urban and suburban peripheries under the stress of overwhelming social and cultural forces. Although they appear to be dark documentary records—nighttime views of industrial and suburban sprawl near Melbourne—they are as contrived and manipulated as their lush, exaggerated chemical tones and the gimmicky, nearly blacked-out gallery installation. Henson’s earlier black-and-white photographs of figures standing in crowds were seen at the Guggenheim in 1984; they were a catalogue of urban resignation. His highly sensational polyptychs of young girls, junkies, and naked street children, juxtaposed with views of Baroque palaces, were shown at the I988 Venice Biennale. More recently, he has assembled enormous montages on vast sheets of ply-wood, cutting, slashing, and taping together various staged tableaux of young people lost in a postapocalyptic wilderness of used-car lots and forests. Their Eden resembles certain filmmakers’ dystopian automotive fantasies peopled by the cannibal hippies from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend.

In his works of the mid-’90s, Henson’s subjects were eyebrow-raising young men and women, photographed in group sexual encounters as if unaware of the camera. The present series, “Untitled I997/98,” is for the most part unpeopled, but in one or two images his Larry Clark–like teens reappear: A deathly thin, naked adolescent boy (conspicuously holding a soft-drink can, as if in a product endorsement) arches his white back against a car door in the velvet darkness with such classical orgasmic elegance, in such a deliberately and memorably iconic pose, that he inserts himself by way of Henson’s stage directions into the tradition of museum art. Such chiaroscuro images alternate with luminous photographs of dusk (taken from the streets of an outer Melbourne suburb looking toward the city towers) and photos of almost complete blackness punctuated by railway crossing lights and the sulfurous glow of petrochemical plants. Henson’s new photographs are, typically, intensely anthropomorphic, in that their emotional tenor is one of extreme and old-fashioned gravitas. The tableaux of Mad Max–esque adolescents are, as always, staged so that their violent erotic interactions—or, here, their onanistic gestures—are acted out with varying degrees of inattentiveness, inconclusiveness, and self-forgetfulness. The kids are idealized and theatrical, but detached and oblivious to our gaze. Henson’s city edge is a darkening, millennial world. His beautiful images of railway underpasses, power lines, city lights, and feral children profoundly if morbidly comment on the dissolution of individual identity. As he has always done, Henson smothers political difference and distance under a blanket of memorable, otherworldly images. Here, though, as the result of extreme self-absorption and tonal precision, his work is—perhaps for the first time in a decade—believable rather than merely grotesque and sexually gratuitous.

Charles Green