Michael Hight continues a tradition of transformation that can be seen from Petrus van der Velden’s brooding mountains to the sere, angular vistas of Rita Angus and the richly spiritual headlands of Colin McCahon. The New Zealand countryside has many guises and Hight has created his own vernacular with which to describe the landscape.
Hight paints the land in stunning clarity; he uses deft chiaroscuro to create sharply textured hills and weathered mountains. This same use of strongly defined shadow has the effect of abstracting certain elements – a seemingly paradoxical effect given the hyper-reality of Hight’s paintings. In places the tree trunks in Peel Forest flatten out into upright planes of colour, which, when combined with the strong horizontal shadows on the grass, mimic the angularity of the beehives in the foreground. Likewise, in Malaghan’s Road the faceted rocks atop the hives provide a strong visual link to the carved hills beyond, while the hives themselves act as both contrast and connection to the terrain.
The sharp lines and regular geometry of the hives are obviously at odds with the natural surroundings, yet they do not seem out of place. Hight limits his palette so that the colours of the hives are of a similar spectrum to the surrounding land, suggesting that these man-made objects do have a natural home in the landscape. This idea is further enhanced by the drunken lean of many beehives as well as the haphazard clusters whose placement appears to have little rhyme or reason.
In the magnificent Otira, the blush of flowering Southern Rata tells us it is high summer and the hives here are tall stacks, in scale with the monumental background. The barren scree-line on the mountains beyond as well as the hives heavily weighted with rocks hint at the harshness of the landscape come winter however, and Hight’s reference to van der Velden’s seminal paintings of Otira Gorge cannot be ignored.
The transitory, seasonal aspects of the natural world are a strong subtext in Hight’s works. Although he depicts a singular moment, the mutability of what he portrays is implicit in the faded paint of the beehives, not to mention the lifecycles of the bees they house. In Slope Hill Road summer has already turned with trees barren of leaves or in a blaze of autumn colours and snow already on the hills.
Michael Hight shows us a land that may appear empty at first glance, but whose richness is revealed in the nuances of his brushwork, the strength of his composition and the subtleties of his conversation about the very nature of the land and our relationship to it. At once intimate and grand, his paintings speak to us of not only where we live, but how we live there.
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