By PAUL LASTER, JUL. 2016
What’s the buzz in New York’s galleries this summer? It’s bees, and their byproducts. Three shows of three generations of artists have all featured bees or works made with beeswax. From Mario Merz sculptures and installations constructed with beeswax at Sperone Westwater to Garnett Puett’s honey-comb-covered objects at Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School and Terence Koh’s collages and assemblages incorporating the natural wax and a chapel for meditating to the sound of buzzing bees, the New York art world has forsaken the birds while embracing the bees.
One of the leaders of the Arte Povera movement, Mario Merz explored the relationship between man and the environment in his work from the time of his first exhibitions in Turin in the 1950s until his death in Milan in 2003. Fascinated by the mathematic concept of the Fibonacci numbers, a method of counting in which each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two, the artist made related artworks to explore the calculating theory.
His 1985 installation Quattro tavole in forma di foglie di magnolia (Four tables in the shape of magnolia leaves) consists of 16 standing, welded-steel forms displaying slabs of beeswax with cast, covered and embedded objects like an offering to the gods or an invitation for viewers to feast, while his 1984 sculpture Pianissimo (Very slowly, very softly) is an open-sided, welded-steel cabinet with organically shaped cut-metal forms, wax-cast cone, a Plexiglas tube to channel bees to the piece, a wax-covered pine cone, and a cooking pan full of chunks of beeswax ready to process. Sophisticated in design yet still surprisingly raw in nature, these works invite viewers into a mystical realm.
A fourth generation beekeeper turned artist who was born in Georgia and now lives in Hawaii, Garnett Puett collaborates with bees to make found object sculptures covered with honeycombs and wax created by the busy bees. Exhibiting for the first time with Jack Shainman Gallery in “A Change of Place: Four Solo Exhibitions” at The School in Kinderhook, New York, Puett is showing several of his collaborative assemblages from the 1980s and ‘90s. Presented on welded steel stands and covered by glass bell jars, the works look like strange objects from a science or natural history museum.
His 1989 sculpture Blastula incorporates a metal garbage can lid and a triangular piece of wood dressed in delicate honeycomb forms and balanced on a disk of golden wax, while his 1987 piece Shock Box consists of an old electrical motor encrusted with organically shaped honeycombs and runny wax, smartly resting atop a circular ground. Along with other beguiling works of this type and era, Puett has installed two active works at The School that are being constructed by honey bees before our eyes—with tubes connected to the outside to allow the flying insects to make a beeline to a cabinet stocked with antique rifles and an old bathroom sink, which are being methodically altered.
A neo-conceptual artist who makes poetic work, Terence Koh had seemed to have gone into early retirement or at least taken a hiatus, but in fact he had simply moved to Upstate New York so that he could better commune with nature and become self-sustainable. For his first solo show in the city since 2011, Koh is presenting the exhibition “Bee Chapel” at Andrew Edlin Gallery. Taking over the whole space, Koh offers an installation centered on an earthly realm with an apple tree and bees, which he hopes might change the world.
Wanting to bring the Garden of Eden into the gallery, Koh filled the inner rooms with dirt, added a sickly apple tree to nurse back to health, installed a lounge and library with books on horticulture and philosophy, and created a bee chapel, where one can meditate to the resonating sound of live bees. The lounge displays Koh three-dimensional collages made with found images, honeycombs, pollen, dead bees, plants and dirt, along with his hands cast in different meditation positions from beeswax.
The main attraction, however, is the Bee Chapel sitting high above a mound of dirt with packed steps that lead to the door of the dome-shaped structure, which is just big enough for a single solitary soul to make peace with themselves and the world. Connected to the outer world with a clear Plexi tube, worker bees pay homage to the queen of the hive in a screened area at the top of the chapel, creating a meditative buzz over the worshipper’s head. Constructing his own hive of activity in the gallery, Koh is making honey to nourish our souls. WM
Mario Merz: Works from the 1980s at Sperone Westwater, New York, April 30 - June 25, 2016. Pianissimo (Very slowly, very softly), 1984 is on view in Sculpture at the gallery through August 5, 2016. A Change of Place: Four Solo Exhibitions at Jack Shainman Gallery's The School, May 22 - October 29, 2016. Terence Koh: Bee Chapel at Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York, May 21 - July 29, 2016.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author