For a number of years, Michael Hight’s practice has been informed by two conceptual and visually distinct streams. His 'Beehive' paintings sit within a New Zealand landscape tradition that celebrates the beauty of a sometimes unforgiving environment. Hight’s 'Nocturnes', or night paintings, owe more to the Surrealist notions of painted dreamscapes and visible manifestations of the subconscious. Tributary brings together these distinctive strands to create a space for the examination of their differences and similarities.
The differences between the paintings are clearly obvious and comparing them reveals the conceptual as well as visual dualities that exist between Hight’s parallel practices: day/night, exterior/interior, rational/irrational, conscious/subconscious, seeing/dreaming. Seen together, the painter’s style is writ large across each of the two painting styles. The attention to detail, controlled brushwork, and crisp delineation of line and tone are present in all of Hight’s paintings.
At first glance the Beehive works are classic landscape compositions. Pastoral and wilderness elements are complemented by ramshackle outbuildings and exotic trees. Looking closer however, Hight’s hyper-realism sets up a sense of unease that lies just underneath the surface of the image; there is an eerie stillness to the beauty of the scene. Each Nocturne reveals a collection of familiar objects and landscapes displayed against a stage-like backdrop. No external context is given to the rationale for each arrangement, but an internal, hidden logic seems to lie just beyond reach. Hight leaves clues hidden in plain sight to help decode each work, requiring the viewer to narrate its story as they see it.
In Tributary pairs of paintings are bound by a common geographic location but the artist leaves it to viewers to find the threads that link them. Tapuaenuku: The Watcher and Clarence River both reference the northeast of the South Island; the former is the name of the highest mountain in the region and it overlooks the valley where the Clarence River flows.
Tapuaenuku: The Watcher brings together small landscape vignettes to frame a cabinet containing, amongst other implements, shearing blades and a bone-handled carving set. The formal composition brings to mind a Victorian parlour with its collection of oddities and it is worth noting that this particular region lies alongside Molesworth Station, the country’s largest, and one of the oldest, farms. Clarence River displays all the characteristics of a Hight Beehive painting. The angular geometries of the hives in the foreground mirror the sharply-ridged mountain flanks, and the carefully placed rocks atop each one create mountains in miniature, leading the eye up to the horizon. Taken together, the stark, clear light of Clarence River emphasises the interiority of Tapuaenuku - an ironic juxtaposition as the latter is also called Tapuae-o-uenuku, or 'footprint of the rainbow'.