Bill Henson Returns
A new show by the acclaimed photographer Bill Henson will feature portraits of figures, similar to images of naked teenagers that provoked controversy and a police raid of his show at a Sydney gallery in 2008.
The invitation to Henson’s upcoming exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery features a photo of a teenage boy, bare-chested and glistening with sweat, looking pensively away from the camera. Henson has not decided which photos will be shown at the exhibition, which opens on September 20, but in an interview with the Herald‘s art critic John McDonald in this Saturday’s Spectrum, he said "It will focus more on the body, and less on landscape."
It is in stark contrast to Henson’s 2010 exhibition at the Paddington gallery, his first show following the police raid, which appeared to disappoint his detractors by featuring works that were mostly landscapes and architectural ruins. "He ignited controversy – now he’s ditching it," was the title of column in response. However, gallery owner Roslyn Oxley said the show includes both landscape and figurative works that represent themes Henson has explored for more than three decades.
Following the controversy over Henson’s photos, the government of New South Wales, Australia changed its child pornography laws in 2010, removing the defence of artistic purpose. The law change meant artists who create images of naked children have to pay for a Commonwealth classification to ensure against prosecution. Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery submitted works from Henson’s 2010 exhibition to the Classification Board, which ruled they would be "unlikely to offend a reasonable adult".
Oxley said the 2008 scandal had not affected Henson’s work. "There has been no impact. People who love and respect Bill Henson’s work continue to love and respect his work." Last year, Henson gave a speech in which he described the 2008 scandal as "at best inconvenient". In 2008, Henson’s show at Roslyn Oxley9 was raided by police following accusations of child pornography. Several photos were seized, investigated and Henson’s work was labelled "revolting" and "devoid of artistic merit" by the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd.
In contrast, the then opposition treasury spokesman Malcolm Turnbull, who owns Henson works, criticised the police raids of galleries displaying photos by Henson. Criminal investigations into Henson were widened to include previous work and other galleries were forced to remove his photos from display. But three weeks later, the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to proceed with any charges and the seized photos were returned to the gallery.
Henson is one of Australia’s most highly regarded contemporary artists, having represented the country at the Venice Biennale. He has been the subject of exhibitions at major galleries, including the Art Gallery of NSW, which holds almost 70 works by Henson, including landscapes, ruins and figures. "We obviously think he is very important in Australian art," said the gallery’s curatorial director and head of international art, Tony Bond. "I think Henson’s imagination and the depth of his cultural engagement is quite extraordinary."
Henson said he did not seek out controversy. "Some people decide they want to be controversial," he said. "I don’t know who in their right mind could be so stupid."