If you were a bee, you’d be well within your rights to buzz scornfully in humans’ ears. Agriculture depends on pollination, and while other insects do their part, it’s the honeybee who does the heavy lifting. People light beeswax candles, and use honey for everything from wound care to adhesion to sweetening tea. Yet indications suggest we’re the culprits behind the disappearance of millions of bees. What are we doing on behalf of our dedicated little assistants in the ongoing project of civilization? Not very much.
The meaning of the bee in New Jersey art has changed accordingly. Once a symbol of industriousness, bees have come to stand for existential peril. Like the polar bear on the ice floe, the bee has become a martyr animal: a figure for human selfishness and environmental neglect. As bees vanish from the gardens of the Garden State, they swarm in the imaginations of sensitive local creators. Carolyn Jao, for instance, creates large prints of bees and other pollinating insects, bristling with detail, exuding sympathy for the besieged creatures. Anonda Bell, a conceptual artist enamored of paper cutouts, has become a fearless insect advocate presenting work as startling as the discovery of a bug on the ceiling.
Now comes “To Bee or Not to Bee,” a lively group exhibition at the Barron Arts Center in Woodbridge dedicated to raising consciousness about the plight of the pollinator.
Unlike certain theme shows that encourage a loose, abstract approach, this one is resoundingly literal. Almost all of these 40 artists present us with pictures of bees; several of them give us many bees at once. A few of these renderings take some liberties with the body of the bee, but most seem to be as anatomically precise as their creators know how to be. The result is a show with uncommon reverence for its subject — one with a teacherly address to visitors and the density of a hive abuzz.
It helps that bees are instantly identifiable and rewarding to depict. As insects go, they’ve got style; they wear their fuzzy yellow outfits with a combination of elan and humility. Most of the artists involved in “To Bee or Not to Bee” know better than to impart too much humanity to their representations of a decidedly non-human life form, but anthropomorphism flutters into many of these depictions. In Nick Rosal’s “Chronicle of the Bee” — a multi-media work in paint and paper, and the winner of a best-in-show award presented by a recycling company — a bee aloft searches for a safe landing place in a field of flowers with pesticide logos on their petals. Its back is arched, its weapon is retracted, and there’s a noticeably soulful look in its black, glassy eye. It could be a harried Jersey commuter, going about its daily business in the face of a world that has become a real pain in the stinger.
We are meant to feel for this tiny guy, and feel we do. We hope he makes it, though we don’t quite know how he’ll manage.
Nina Hons’ “Faith of the Bees” is even more desolate: her sun-browned field bears one flower only, and it is emblazoned with a HAZMAT symbol where its stamen ought to be. As the sky weeps blue paint, her bee raises an antenna quizzically, in the hen-pecked equivalent of a human shrug.
Sometimes this can be as on the nose as … well, as a bee landing on your nose. Nicolette Reiser bluntly names her collage “You’ll Bee Dead Without Us” and surrounds her buzzy protagonist with a honeycomb festooned with pictures of fruits, nuts and vegetables that require insect pollination to thrive. This is as didactic as a school handout but, inelegant as it is, it does get its point across.
The best pieces in this exhibition are the ones that detach the bee from its human utility and instead investigate its peculiar bee-ish qualities. Kristen Barth’s “Home Is Where You Make It,” my favorite piece in the show, channels the fragility and sociability of bees through curlicues of quilled paper.
The more the bee is defamiliarized, the better “To Bee or Not to Bee” works. All metaphors for human labor aside, gathering pollen from flowers and creating honeycombs from bodily secretions are odd and alien activities, and the photographs that capture the bees in these acts are at once deeply familiar and otherworldly.
In Judith A. Lieberman’s “Magnolia With Bees,” three insects probe the curved petals of a great white flower that covers them like a festival tent. As the central bee buries itself in a tangle of pollinating organs, another speeds toward the action with its proboscis eagerly extended. It’s an image of peaceful symbiosis that recommends bee existence and, like Frances Porrello’s lilac-smothered “Gathering Food,” implies that rolling around in a great flower might be an optimal way to spend a day. These photos suggest that humanity’s real crime against the bees might be aesthetic: We’re great oafs interrupting an idyllic way of life.
Other photos are decidedly less comfortable. No matter how fuzzy and friendly a single tennis-ball-like bee might seem in isolation from its fellows, images of great heaps of insects in a crawling hive are likely to visit the creeps on any person who isn’t a beekeeper.
Anita Gould’s arresting “Crowded Neighborhood” captures hundreds of bees, their bodies overlapping, piggybacking, and crisscrossing on three congested slivers of comb in an apiary. Her “Queen Cells” isn’t quite such a fluster, but it does communicate the translucent, papier-mâché-like texture of the comb, the warped contours of its hexagonal landscape, and its promise of solitude amidst the thrumming swarm. Do bees, little urbanists as they are, require personalized retreats where they can catch the measure of their tiny individualities?
Maybe. The more we learn about these insects, the sharper they seem. Through a complex series of signs and movements depicted in Rosal’s “Evolution of the Waggle Dance” painting, a bee can tell its buddies where to find the freshest flowers. Bees, we now know, recognize human faces. Laura Brown returns the favor in a trio of “Bee Portraits” — watercolors on squares of wood that gives the insect the sort of close-cropped, finely detailed treatment we associate with photos of loved ones in lockets. Her three bees are simultaneously related and different, like a trio of distinguished old uncles staring back from heirlooms in a den.
It would be wrong to call it a centerpiece, but you won’t be able to visit “To Bee or Not to Bee” without catching a documentary on local beekeepers by the appropriately named Adya Beasley. The 15-minute flick, which plays on a medium-sized monitor in a loop, is wrenching: for Beasley’s subjects, the apiary is their livelihood, but they also care deeply about their little charges, and worry about what’s happening to them. If people can’t bring themselves to care about an insect that we literally cannot live without, what hope for survival do less useful species have in a time as cruel as the Anthropocene?
Entomologist Grant Stiles of Stiles Apiaries in Ford, the bee-loving hero of Beasley’s film, will lecture on “The Fight to Save the Bees and Our Food Supply” at the Barron Arts Center, Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m. I think we’d better listen.
“To Bee or Not to Bee’ will be on display at the Barron Arts Center in Woodbridge through Sept. 27; visit twp.woodbridge.nj.us/150/Barron-Arts-Center.
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