A Taste of Honey
By Mark Amery
Degas did ballet dancers, Frances Hodgkins farming implements, but I can't think of any artist who has more monopolized one single subject matter than Michael Hight.
That subject has been beehives. Apiary (as collections of hives are known) have dominated Hight's painting since the mid 1990s.
And not that elegant cone represented on matchboxes and at parliament, but the colorful stacks that you see sitting out in the fields in New Zealand near the roadside, like little clusters of teetering mini tower blocks. With this subject Hight can move in material between oil paint and the use of resin and found board, all within the same show. Yet apart from the ooze of the resin there has not been a single buzzing bee or drip of honey in sight. They are vessels and noticeboards for more universal signs of time and belief.
What particularly distinguishes Hight's practise however is that his approach to this one subject has been so widely varied: from abstract arrangements of apiary's rough tablets of colour - sometimes enlivened by riffs on familiar icons inspired by both art history and the hives themselves - to their naturalistic arrangement in landscape in his current exhibition at Page Blackie gallery. In recent years Hight has also made surreal still lives by placing hives and other stacks of weathered rural monuments onto surfaces as tableau. Subjected to strong side lighting against black surfaces, they connect our rural icons to those European history has provided us to create poetic, theatrical allegories.
His current exhibition plays it far more safe, with the one painterly realist approach, all set within New Zealand's popular domain of wistful nostalgia - the lonesome, rugged South Island landscape. Just like the Karl Maughan gardens and Dick Frizzell still lives shown over summer at the gallery, these paintings are accomplished and no doubt eminently saleable, but not on first look not exactly adventurous. It sends out the worrying warning signal that a once heralded young abstract painter could now settle into a less adventurous production line. Let it not be so.
Yet before I turn you away, there are also plenty of hives here that provide far richer and more complex meditation than this might suggest. Several works which I particularly like are closely-cropped studies of form, line and colour more than they are depictions. In Ashley Gorge it's a jiggering clutter of upturned hives in the snow, with a splay of diagonal planes, and movement between crisp white surfaces and the pale worn sides of the boxes not touched by the fresh snowfall. Here the abstract and representational are in a playful dance. Ashley River meanwhile is a strong geometric spatial arrangement of hives and a concrete pipe. Compositionally it could be a work by cubist Leger. Animated by strong light and shadow, the hives' numbering, the rocks on their tops and bands of iron wrapped around them, assist a beautiful inherent tension in the picture between constraint and release - as if the whole scene might blow up at any minute.
In other works however there's a more uncomfortable tension: between the foreground hives and the painterly strata of vegetation. Lees Valley Road is a star work but even here I find the painted grasses and beach tree trunks a little irritating. The row of hives meanwhile totter and shuffle forward like filing cabinets, promising to unload any personal history you might call up. There is a beautiful play between tones, light and texture, the hives' appealingly worn fronts able to be read like a library of historic iconography. In Grays River and White Sow Valley the hives in various states of ruin form casual circles on wide open valleys, ringed by makeshift fences as if communities with their own history, secrets and rituals - the closest we might have to standing stone circles. Yet the background mountain ranges lack animation.
More unusual is the impressive large work Kerepehi, a study of an enormous scattered pile of broken old hives and palettes. Its reminiscent in its compositional complexity of contemporary installation artist Eve Armstrong's assemblages of discarded material. Kerepehi is an example of Hight's determination to stay with the one subject, yet find new ways to stretch his painting by treating his subject differently. Line, colour and shape are emphasised in this way as primary.
Michael Hight, Page Blackie Gallery, Wellington, until 27 February