Wildcards, Bill Henson Shuffles the Deck – review by Fiona Gruber

Alicia, 2003, by Cherine Fahd. Photograph: MGA

Alicia, 2003, by Cherine Fahd. Photograph: MGA

MGA 11 February – 30 March 2014.

Anyone expecting Bill Henson’s emotionally infused landscapes and figures by the master of the chiaroscuro in this exhibition will be in for a disappointment: none of the artist’s work appears in Wildcards, Bill Henson Shuffles the Deck. What the exhibition offers, however, is an insight into his mind through a fascinating selection of images that capture an Australia through time and underline Henson’s abiding attraction to the intimate, evanescent moment.

This is a country seen through the lens of others. Of the 38 photographers, some, such as David Moore, Mark Strizic and Wesley Stacey, are well-known names, while others, such as Norman Lindsay, are better known as painters and etchers.

Henson, curating a collection of Australian photography here for the first time, has provided an artist’s statement at the entrance to the exhibition of 88 works he has selected from the Monash Gallery of Art’s collection of 2000 photographs. Meaning comes from feeling, he says; sensations are the primary stuff of life. This exhibition is a reflexive experiment and an open-ended self-portrait.

There are no themes but rather images that appeal to the eye and, indeed, the whole body. Because photographs are first and foremost objects, their size, shape grouping and texture are as important as the images they’re recording.

Entering the cavernous space, painted black for the show, it is the colour – or lack of it – that comes as a surprise. Henson works mainly in colour, albeit it often a muted palette, but most of the works here are black and white. The history of photography is largely monochrome, and this time travel is intimately evoked through the small size of the images. You have to get close to experience their vivid nostalgia.

Many are of an Australia that has disappeared: stockmen, sheep and ragged children, portraits of people long dead, steelyards, shipbuilders and magical, arboreal landscapes that probably still remain but seem forever lost in their black and white somnolence.

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