Omarama, Place of Light : Michael Hight’s Beehive Paintings
Catalogue essay for Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland, 2002.
Boxes of light, landscapes of light, the beehive paintings primarily represent an ongoing meditation upon the diffusion, accumulation, and harnessing of light. The cordial atmosphere fortifies the southern mountains and paddocks with an incandescent glow. Honeyed light that, concealed in the bees’ chamber, sweetens an appetite for mystery, ambiguity, and danger. Michael Hight’s latest beehive paintings, located in the breathtaking fields of Omarama, pay fitting tribute to the meaning of the place name, ‘place of light.’
The beehive metaphor appeals to the artist as a site of transformation, a setting where wax becomes honeycomb, where the luminous, geometric structure witnesses the conversion of nectar into honey. And each beehive transforms the artist’s palette, the ochre, white, and red, into sensual image. The paintings stand as portraits of the New Zealand landscape yet they also stand as portraits of the artmaking process. The artist, like the bee, navigates, collects, and transforms.
The beehive as transformative site leads us back to the Readymade tradition where the artist converts something outside art into art. Hight sought forms on the New Zealand landscape to make works in either a representational or an abstract way and beehives kept appearing on his journeys. The beehives were seen as installations on the land: sculptural compositions laid out by the beekeeper that could, in delightful echo, be repeated on canvas by the artist. Part of the Readymade impulse is to make the ordinary, extraordinary; to reanimate the way we see the everyday world. Hight, in keeping with that impulse, transforms the commonplace, and often unnoticed, beehive into an object of arcane, architectural beauty.
The beehive metaphor also appeals to the artist as a site of opposition. Joseph Beuys, in his enduring attachment to the work of the bees, produced art that, in imitation of the hive, incorporated fluidity and geometry. Beuys likened the shift from fluid material to hardened wax, from amorphous bodily secretion to crystalline honeycomb, as a sculptural process that made passage from hot to cold. Yet a hive’s panels of weather-beaten wood withhold the inner movement of the bees from us. Instead we contemplate a stillness, we behold a mutating household that haunts us with activity that remains private.
Such is the alluring balance of Hight’s paintings; order gives way to chaos, chaos gives way to order. Light gives way to darkness. Warmth gives way to chill. Movement gives way to stillness. The cold-capped mountain peaks rise above the scorched grass of summer. Just as the seemingly chaotic society of the bees belies a strict, underlying order, so too, do the beehive paintings. Hight uses the composition of the hives to impose a certain order on a landscape that keeps space for messiness: a field littered with wood and stone debris or discarded beehives.
Hight redoubles the oppositional pattern of the beehives in his attraction to both abstract and representational painting. For him, each approach yields equal satisfaction and his beehive project has included both abstract and representational versions, the one always making reference to the other. Indeed, the beehives can be recognised as icons of modernism. The hive’s panels recall the striped bands of colour that mark the work of artists ranging from Barnett Newman to Sean Scully. Hight’s latest abstract paintings, with the inclusion of beeswax alongside the usual resin and paint-scuffed panels, deny the viewer the panoramic landscapes that feature in the representational works. Such a denial evokes a sense of mystery in keeping with the space that the beehive shields from the viewer. Conversely, Hight’s representational paintings draw us closer to the abstract, to the spiritual, psychological, and emotional impact of bands of colour that are denied a narrative context.
Hight’s visual transcriptions of beehives contribute a New Zealand chapter to the ongoing tradition of artistic associations with the world of bees. Apart from the influence of Joseph Beuys, Hight is drawn to several other international artists who represent aspects of the beehive. Wolfgang Laib’s Wax Chamber series, rooms paved in slabs of beeswax, embalm the body that enters in the seductive aroma of the hive. The chamber, with its honeyed glow cutting into the dark, and its legacy of metamorphosis, heralds the arrival of harmony, balance, and order. For José María Sicilia, the layers of beeswax complete with variously embedded bees, real or otherwise, turn our attention to an ambiguity of perception, to a need and a desire to grasp the artwork intuitively.
The transformation of light occurs when the bee takes something from the sun and under the cover of darkness reproduces liquid gold. Inside the walls of wax and wood, the effort of the bees creates an oxymoron of light dark or dark light as the honeycomb seeps its amber hue. Hight’s invitation to contemplate the pleasures of light points us to a welcome enclosure of warmth yet ironically guides us to an ultimately hostile environment. This can be recognised in the danger of the bees or in the perilous strands of barbed wire that cross a number of his paintings. The beekeeper artificially constructs a dark and venomous world in which human beings are not welcome. The artist retains discordant elements in his composition that act as unfriendly barriers, a heap of rocks, fence posts, the barbed wire, whilst paradoxically encouraging us to enter along mountain paths, river valleys, and hedge rows.
Hight’s remarkable Omarama paintings move the metaphors of transformation and opposition to the moment of viewing where the outsider rediscovers stillness and activity, order and disorder, danger and intimacy in a honeyed conduit of meditation.
1. Gotz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, Karin Thomas Joseph Beuys: Life and Works (New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 1979).
2. Wolfgang Laib Somewhere Else (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Cantz Verlag, 1999).
3. José María Sicilia (Madrid: Galeria Soledad Lorenzo, 1994).