The bees are dying, even in Montecito. Colony collapses are the thing of apocalyptic news reports, with everything from pesticides to cellphone use as the culprit. So with this new and rare art show called “Swarm” at Lotusland, the question can be asked: Is this a celebration or a memorial? Nancy Gifford, artist, collector, and curator, got a chance to turn several rooms in Madame Ganna Walska’s house into a place to examine what bees mean to art, humanity and nature. The results are worth your time to attend.
The centerpiece of the show is Penelope Stewart’s beeswax tiles, which completely cover one side of the entrance room and serve as a gateway into the other rooms. Using pounds upon pounds of beeswax, which in this enclosed space smells lovely, Ms. Stewart has used Lotusland as inspiration for the shapes that jut out of the bas-relief installation. Lotus pods, succulent blooms, decorative doorknobs, candelabras and more have been molded from wax and now stick out of the wall. The various colors of wax, based on the bees’ location and diet, make for fascinating exploration alone.
Ms. Stewart works in all sorts of media, and her art is scattered throughout the rooms in the show. Large paintings of ancient beehives are replicated later with her dark glass version of the same, inviting a tactile response.
The second main work of the show is Jonathan Smith and Ethan Turpin’s hexagonal room, which surrounds the visitor with loud buzzing and large video projections of bees in their hive, shot in Montecito. The interior space, which five people would call crowded, offers a mirrored ceiling, and can be either claustrophobic or meditative. (Disclosure: I curated a show last year that contained a previous version of the work.)
Elsewhere, we get fascinating electron-microscopic photos of bees, where pollen resting in hair looks like a football-shaped sponge in a field of sticks. Rose-Lynn Fisher’s black-and-white pictures take anything familiar about bees and render them alien and beautiful. Step back from the yellow-and-black pattern and the buzz, she seems to say, and look again.
Stephanie Wilde co-opts Persian miniature painting for her bee series, which the artist sees as a companion to her earlier work on the AIDS crisis — both sudden, mysterious illnesses. However, the politics are submerged here for the dextrous and skilled beauty of the brush and pattern work. Opening night didn’t provide enough time to really take in the complexity of these paintings, with their microscopic line and gold leaf.
The exhibition is filled out with works by Theresa Carter, Bill Dewey, Ed Inks, Cynthia James, Casey Lurie, Keith Puccinelli, Maria Rendon and Anna Vaughan.
Ms. James’ work is particularly interesting, with its magical realistic paintings of plants that may or may not exist, as if culled from some 19th-century botanicum. There is something debauched about the work that drips from the canvas.
There’s no proselytizing in this exhibition, just a concern, and a sort of helplessness in the face of bizarre change. It has produced some great work; but the real work one wishes to continue comes down to the bees themselves, if we are that lucky and escape an unpollinated fate.
“Swarm” continues through May with selected events: Salon with Rose-Lynn Fisher, Ethan Turpin and Jonathan PJ Smith, March 9; Film screening of Vanishing of the Bees, March 21; Dance performance “Bees Circling Heaven” by Robin Bisio, April 13.
‘Swarm: A Collaboration with Bees’
When: Through May 4
Where: Lotusland, 695 Ashley Rd., Santa Barbara
Cost: Varies, check schedule
Information: 969-9990 or www.lotusland.org