Michael Hight’s art is an excellent example of how paintings can seem to be simple, beautiful landscapes, whilst simultaneously being deeply symbolic and metaphorical pieces which work on a variety of levels.
Taken just as landscapes, these gorgeous works present beautiful, painstaking depictions of the open vistas of the South Island high country. The current series of images, showing scenes from Kaikoura down to Glenorchy, add to the artist’s ongoing exploration of the land and its forms. The paintings reflect the natural wonders of the South Island in dynamic and challenging compositions which are excellently rendered by the artist.
But these are not simple landscapes. The repeated metaphor of the beehive adds multiple layers to the meaning of the works, transcending the pure genre landscape. From a compositional viewpoint, the hives give a foreground focus with regular geometric forms which contrast with the random ruggedness of the terrain. The use of complementary palettes for the landscape and the hives allows these man-made objects to sit comfortably within their surroundings. The paint on the hives is cracked and fading - these are not new hives, but represent the long history of human interaction with the land and the parlous state of the industry as it now exists. These ubiquitous symbols of symbiosis between human and bee pass unnoticed on our journeys through New Zealand; Hight demands that we see them, and by looking at his works, our view of the country is changed.
Bees, very much the life blood of agriculture, are now faced with many environmental threats. The looming trees in Routeburn Road and Hapuku, Kaikoura - again, natural forms shaped for use by the hands of humans - create ominous patterns of darkness, as if warning of an uncertain future. In Red Jacks, rusted cars form potent symbols of humanity’s culture of ephemera and planned obsolescence. Bees themselves are conspicuous by their absence in all Hight’s images. The hives are there, but they, not bees, are the living forms of the pictures, standing sentinel, or appearing to whisper and collude in paintings such as Glenroy. There is the sense of an eerie silence about the land, a land becoming devoid of the insects who should call it home.
There is a magic in the bee’s work - the transformation of plant to honey. It is an old magic, and one based in nature, and one that has been adopted and adapted by humans for their own ends. The hives, rooted in the landscape, become symbols of this magic, reflecting the standing stones and henges of ancient cultures. This similarity, as it appears in such works as Rangitata Valley and Glenorchy - Paradise Road, is not coincidental. Here, man and nature are working together in a mystical pattern, an old rhythm that is in danger of being superseded by less ecologically sound “progress”. Michael Hight allows us to see the older rhythms, both geological and chronological, in the clear light and deep shade of the tamed but as yet unconquered land.