Art Life , Exhibitions Aug 16, 2013 3 Comments

From Andrew Frost

Perversely perhaps, there are only two works in Cloudscapes at the Art Gallery of NSW that depict actual clouds. The remainder of the 14 prints from the gallery’s collection that make up the exhibition are rich with the Romantic atmosphere of Bill Henson’s best work. The exhibition includes prints from the Paris Opera Project of 1990/91 and the ‘Mahler’ series from 1976 and a series of works from various periods, including the bleak arcadia of car wrecks and naked bodies from 1991, and other interiors, landscapes and figure studies.


Henson’s work, so publicly overexposed in recent years for all the wrong reasons, maintains its high art aloofness, and that is it essential attraction: to enter the work is a singular experience, the tightly focused and underexposed frames become a world beyond this one, recognisable and related, but a discreet and poetic space. The two works that feature clouds are a respite from Henson’s dark world, but even here its the light of a setting sun that gives them colour, producing chimerical apparitions among the treetops.

Until September 22
Art Gallery of NSW, The Domain
Pic: Bill Henson Untitled 2005/06. Type C photograph, 104 × 155 cm.

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Andrew Frost


  1. Emily O'Neill


    Mr Frost twigged to “perverse”, but forgot to interrogate it.

    There will be no respite from Mr Henson’s “dark world” until he has been thrown in gaol.

    Henson 1, Frost 0.

    You may have misunderstood the nature of these previews Emily… Art Life Management

  2. Emily O'Neill

    Dear Art Life,

    My understanding is that, according to convention, a ‘preview’ is an early peek at a forthcoming exhibition of new work for the purposes of promotion and/or review.

    The term surely loses all meaning when applied to previously exhibited material – as in the case of Henson’s Cloudscapes – which, without exception, comprises a retrospective melange of recycled, shopworn photographs that have been reviewed to death over the past thirty years to the very last crepuscular grain.

    To give the show this title is not merely a curatorial misnomer but a highly suspect, manipulative ploy to attract visitors to the exhibition who perhaps, like myself, were interested in seeing a freshly curated collection of Henson’s ‘cloud studies’, rather than his regularly trotted out necromantic freak show. Thus for Art Life to dignify this cynical, self-legitimising re-run with a so-called ‘preview’ is to suspend critical standards and to undermine its credibility.


    In the great wash of exhibitions that come and go, we sometimes preview/review shows that are staged by public galleries and museums that contain older works by well known artists. Thus the post on the Henson show took into account what was on offer, not what you may have wished to see. You are however being disingenuous to claim that we have somehow erred in our role to post these previews when in fact your original objection was not to the fact that older work was featured in the AGNSW show, but that you felt the artist himself was ‘perverse’ – i.e. a moralistic shorthand that tried to reignite the so-called controversy over Henson and his work – Art Life Management.

  3. Frank (aka Emily)

    Apparently there’s one rule for me and another for TAL.

    Of course my comment was a tuppenny bunger but it was still my opinion, albeit cheeky.

    Since Mr Frost made a provocative statement in the first instance (“Henson’s work, so publicly overexposed in recent years for all the wrong reasons [my italics]…”), he should be prepared for a reaction. Instead TAL engaged in unseemly nitpicking of my sincere attempt at clarification.

    Although not my intention, is it so wrong to “reopen debate”?

    How does ‘public overexposure’ ensuing from an artist’s own […] behaviour constitute “all the wrong reasons” for his or her elevated public profile?

    And precisely what is the distinction between ‘preview’ and ‘review’?

    Although touted as a ‘preview’ by Mr Frost, the passage I quoted from contains both an aesthetic judgment and a moral proposition. So what is it? If a promo, should that not preclude value statements?

    In a democracy art and culture blogs may represent the last outposts of independent journalism allowing direct community participation. Being a reader I’m entitled to a point of view, even a biased one, if argued well – and to anonymity if deemed necessary to protect myself or the innocent (e.g., see The Power Trip, 2014; TAL’s response to ‘Art Rant’ was not exactly a vote for privacy and free speech: “Busted. Your IP address reveals all. – Art Life Management”). Not so entitled is Mr Frost, an influential opinion-maker by virtue of his blog and his stature within local art milieus. Yet not only must I uncritically accept his adjudications and correctives, but I must also cop a little rap on the knuckles for my “disingenuous” attempt to “reignite” an old controversy.

    But Mr Frost threw in his tuppenceworth first.

    Certainly there’s not much risk of reopening an old debate on an arts blog that dampens controversy and hosts sporadic, desultory commentary at the best of times. The pub regularly empties before closing. Why is this? What has happened to critical debate? Where is TAL’s dynamic readership?

    Overzealous moderation is just another form of censorship that inhibits participation and engagement. Turn to any quality arts & culture blog (e.g. Vanity Fair or Salon or The New York Times (e.g. and you’ll find vigorous, respectful, witty dialogue limited only by its parameters. Readers are at liberty to say what they like and to converse with one other willy-nilly on contentious and sometimes difficult subjects (see Jason’s comment, posted from France: What we need in the modern world is a serious discussion of ethics…etc). These blogs are full of vitality, humour and intelligence and encourage critical thinking. It is by now a truism to say that they engender subtle shifts in public opinion through a distillation of community knowledge and wisdom via debate. Perhaps we are at a pass now where this is the only voice we have left. Naturally these blogs are moderated, but you trust that it is in service to healthy debate, not in defence of editorial positions or vested interests. Abusers are dealt with. You do not feel spied upon (even if you are), and you trust that subeditors have better things to do than to referee conversations or micromanage their weblogs. By this post I am taking issue not so much with Mr Frost’s promotion of Mr Henson’s sparsely clouded little show, but with what I perceive to be an editorial ‘boundaries issue’.

    It seems to me that TAL suffers from over-moderation (if not bias). Defensive (as opposed to clarifying) editorial interference in reader’s comments would cause outrage on Open Road! My slip in calling a preview a “review” (perhaps understandable given the blurred distinction) was picked up to invalidate a point sincerely made by me. TAL incorrectly surmised my motives: tho superficially true, it was not so much about what I wished to see but what the title of the show led me to expect (thus piquing my curiosity), given an oeuvre that characteristically switches emphasis between landscape and figure when these are not in combination. I was curious to view Cloudscapes as it implied a fresh curatorial focus, so I took the trouble to go see it. That’s how fair and unbiased I am.

    Maybe it’s just me but I really don’t liked being conned. I was both surprised and offended by the AGNSW’s misleadingly themed moniker for this incoherent shambles of an exhibition containing everything but the kitchen sink (the antithesis of a unifying theme!). By the time I read Mr Frost’s casual dismissal of an historically significant debate between the art world and the wider community my hackles were up. Community debate and dialogue over highly contentious matters involving ethics and regulation in the art market surely do not merit cavalier dismissal by an independent arts blog.

    Apart from the ineluctable fact that Mr Henson’s stock hoovered up the publicity and was value-added by his depiction as a victim of art censorship (in felicitous service to his grandiloquent restoration to the oz art pantheon), I wonder about the point to Mr Frost’s preview of a minor Henson retrospective (how many is it now?) that – as it turns out – proffered few fresh insights or new conceptual angles to a captive viewing public. I trust it was not meant as a gesture of solidarity – given that Mr Henson clearly does not, for whatever reason, need the publicity.

    Though feisty, I believe my comments were valid and sincere, and thus neither requiring moderation nor reprimand.

    The difference between TAL and you Frank is that we can get sued – Art Life Management.

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