Michael Hight’s landscapes explore the tension between the wild and the domestic. Under cloudless skies, the eroded faces and sharp ridgelines of mountain peaks run down to the exotic plantings and farmed paddocks at their feet. The artist’s signature beehives act as the ultimate symbol of domesticated nature and (economic) industry. Due to their very co-optation to the requirements of modern agriculture and economic imperatives however, the existence of bees is increasingly precarious, an irony implied in Hight’s works.
Hight’s beehive paintings sit within a narrative of landscape painting that extends through the works of Rita Angus, Michael Smither, and Don Binney. Like these painters, Hight’s clarity of line, light, and shadow throws the geology and geography of the land in sharp relief. This hard, clear light is the first thing noticed upon seeing the central work of this collection, Middle Rock Station. The snow’s bluish-white reflects a cold, still light off the canvas surface and the sky’s pale hue also possesses a chill calm. Shadows divide the slopes into a collection of angular facets, which become more regular and controlled as the eye moves down to the farmland below and comes to rest on the ordered rectangles of the beehives in the foreground.
Hight details how human intervention has shaped the ecology of the area: lines of macrocarpas and poplars act as windbreaks and scrubby gorse bushes – escapees from their original hedging – dot the paddocks. The mob of grazing sheep appears as a permanent fixture in this altered landscape and like the honey-bees, they hold the status of non-native immigrants. The artist draws parallels between the controlled, human-made environment of the bee-hives and the similarly manipulated environment of the landscape.
The purity of light and structure in Michael Hight’s landscapes fosters the sense of the countryside’s stark beauty, but also performs as a foil for his commentary on the illusion of a timeless and pristine environment. His paintings aestheticise the colonisation of a natural environment, cloaking human interference with beautiful geometries and considered composition. Hight offers neither solution nor criticism but stands witness; the subtle expression of his message creates space and time for its further consideration.