At Newcastle Art Gallery until May 15 is a welcome opportunity to see a significant body of work by that much-celebrated photographer Bill Henson.
Now one of Australia's most widely recognised artists, he has had a stellar career since first exhibiting at the age of 19 in his native Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria in 1975.
He now shows regularly every two years in leading galleries all around Australia, while his work is also shown every year in the world's art museums. He has represented us at the Venice Biennale and has photographs in major collections in Europe, Japan and the Americas.
His work is renowned for its large scale and emotional impact, giving it a similar status to painting, often revealing a painterly preoccupation with light and shade, with landscapes and figures swimming up to us out of the dark.
He is not a documentary photographer capturing the perfect moment to record the drama of everyday life. His works are very carefully composed and edited. His figure studies are staged tableaux in which human dramas are played out in dramatic twilight, implying narrative and even touching the heart.
The work on view at Newcastle Art Gallery combines a touring exhibition from the specialist Monash Gallery for photography at Wheelers Hill in suburban Melbourne with our gallery's holdings of Bill Henson's works covering over 30 years of his creative life and including prints from several of his most substantial series.
There is early work from 1974 and 1975 whose subject is the faceless schoolgirls, all hats and legs, popular with other artists of the time.
An emotionally charged father and daughter come from the ambitious Paris Opera works of 1990. A sequence of the rituals of feral teenagers are still disturbing examples of the kind of works accused of pornography in a celebrated case in 2008.
It is obvious that these essays exploring innocence and experience have nothing to do with political or social comment.
There are also dark landscapes, tantalisingly hinting at a hidden reality, with few clues and no concern for identifying particular places.
The touring exhibition The light fades but the gods remain expands the context of these earlier works, often with dazzling intensity. But what distinguishes this work is that it was commissioned to celebrate a particular locality, Glen Waverley, the Melbourne suburb where the artist grew up.
There are urban vistas of roofs, but much of the work features semi-wild parkland, sometimes as apparent nocturnes, sometimes illuminated by shafts of sunlight.
An eroded lane descends the hill overhung by trees.
These dramatic moments are achieved in the darkroom where day can become night or details are suddenly brilliantly lit. Blacks are again very black.
Those works repay time spent looking. Magical details, including figures, gradually emerge from what first appears as foliage. These perceptual tricks are compounded by the highly reflective glass used in the framing.
Bill Henson is not an artist easily appreciated in a quick walk around; these are objects for meditation.
If Bill Henson's works demand to be assessed as paintings in scale and subject matter, they also command respect as photography. Earlier works in particular, before the advent of digital printing, are evidence of creative hours spent in the darkroom.
By coincidence, the current exhibition at the University Gallery until April 10 is totally concerned with the photograph as physical object, experimentation and manipulation of the chemical emulsion which used to be essential to the printing process.
James Rhodes had studied photography throughout his undergraduate career at the University Art School, always interested in the process of achieving an image.
For his PhD studies he has produced, for instance, an assemblage of smooth river stones printed, rather disconcertingly, with hands and feet. Transparent images are sandwiched between glass. Torn-up prints are collaged into cubist puzzles.
Other works deliberately recreate the curious muted colour of early colour prints.
It's an interesting manipulation of reality.
While Bill Henson works to heighten the intensity of the image, James Rhodes is more concerned with process, deliberately alienating his subjects.
A footnote: The rich resources of the darkroom of the University Art School now lie unused, though still in situ in a building down the hill from the gallery.
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