The Bee's Knees

Two artists have converted Shane House into an artistic beehive, of sorts

If you buzz over to the Shane House Gallery, you'll feel like a bee zipping into the hive.

And it's not only because you'll be overpowered by the smell of beeswax, an aroma halfway between honeyed and sickly. Or even because real-life bees are droning confusedly behind the window screens, lured in by the pheromonal scent.

Mostly, it's because artists Miles Conrad and Corbin Frame have transformed the living and dining rooms into a giant beehive. They call their honeycomb HIVE: Light, Space and Industry.

Conrad has lined every wall of the living room with a patchwork of beeswax-covered squares. Made of workaday industrial materials--like cooler pads and chicken wire--the 12-inch squares were dipped, brushed or rolled in hot beeswax. Then they were nailed onto the walls, where they glisten in warm waxy colors ranging from lemon yellow to deep amber.

In the dining room, Frame's bailiwick, the squares have gone 3-D, metamorphosing into cubes. Frame's installation is the inverse of Conrad's. Where Conrad's pieces are flat, more or less, and arranged along the wall, Frame's are cubes erected in a series of towers in the middle of the room. And while Conrad uses an assortment of metals and colors, Frame sticks to chicken wire, and to pale waxes in lemon and gold.

The two artists were unexpectedly at work in their installation one afternoon last week, days after the opening. Frame's cubes had taken a tumble, and they were busily re-creating the towers. Frame had originally relied on gravity to keep his cubes cohering; this time around, he was fastening them together with beeswax-covered twisty ties.

Conrad, a painter transplanted to Tucson about a year ago, said the arty beehive was inspired by the Shane House's living-working arrangements.

"This site is a gallery and also a dwelling," Conrad explained. "A beehive functions as a dwelling and a center of economics."

The house has coincidentally been home to a number of real-life beehives, and its unusual human history meshes with the worker-bee theme. Shane House has operated as an artists' residence since 1990, but it began life as a single-family house in 1896. Within a few years, the red-brick Queen Anne was converted into a boarding house, to accommodate the crush of workers from the Southern Pacific Railroad clamoring for living space.

In those days, train workers had to abide by the "one mile rule." That meant living closing enough to hear the shriek of the train whistle, the better to be called to work at any time. An enterprising homeowner jimmied a hive of bedrooms onto the back of the elegant home on South Fourth Avenue. The artists living there now live a more freewheeling life than the whistle-beholden workers did, but they're nestled into the same honeycomb.

Conrad said the house's architecture also helped shape the art. The living room has two wide entryways, each flanked by two pillars, and he carefully wrapped swathes of wax-dipped screening around the poles. The crown and floor moldings got a similar treatment.

Frame envisions his dining room as a series of "cubes and voids." Set in the center of the room, it also plays off the architecture; the highest tower, eight feet tall, is set near the staircase. A big open space frames the window.

A New York artist living in Harlem, Frame has specialized in "guerrilla-style outdoor site-specific sculpture. Lately, I've gotten interested in new media, working on virtual reality and immersion pieces."

At the exhibition opening, visitors couldn't resist immersing themselves in his work. Everyone wanted to walk inside the airy structure and stick their heads inside the open cubes. And the bees, he added, "were swarming."

Conrad became familiar with beeswax through his encaustic paintings, which he exhibited this winter at FALA Gallery in the Warehouse District. He also assisted Tucson artist Simon Donovan in the construction of his wild Prick installation, exhibited at the Temple Gallery in December.

When it came time for Conrad's Shane House show, he was already preparing for three other painting shows out of town. So instead of cranking out more paintings, he decided to do an installation, which he hadn't tried since way back in his student days in the early '90s at CalArts, where he and Frame first became friends.

The panels were made in "what we affectionately call the sweatshop," Conrad said, a cramped 9-by-20-foot studio in the Warehouse District. (Frame calls it the "Honeycomb Hideout.") Working with some 600 to 700 pounds of hot wax, the workers inevitably sustained some minor burns. Frame arrived at the opening with solidified wax in his hair.

Conrad calculated in advance how many squares he'd need for his living room hive--he had to fill up eight feet of vertical space between the floor and ceiling moldings--and how many of each kind he would want. He waited until installation night to decide on the exact composition.

But his room-size installation is a kind of giant painting. And it's beautiful. As he notes, the panels are "geometric abstractions" in assorted textures and colors. Their flickering colors alternate between lights and darks. Solid panels are side by side with the contrasting openwork squares, which cast shadows onto the white walls underneath.

Depending on which hardware-store material he used, the panels are lacy and open (chicken wire) or bulbous (wax molded onto bubble wrap) or dark and layered (swamp cooler filters). Sometimes they stand alone; other times they overlap, creating intricate patterns of metal and wax.

At night, Conrad and Frame shine halogen lights through the windows from the outside, creating a soft translucent light. They'll repeat the performance at the closing-night party May 27.

Conrad said a number of visitors--including this one--have commented that the colored panels remind them of patchwork quilts, mainstay of female crafters. But he says the yellowish wall coverings put him in mind of a darker female connection--the early feminist short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. That's the one where the woman is driven mad by the enforced "rest cure" given to ambitious 19th-century females. She becomes obsessed with the sickly yellow wallpaper in the room where she's confined, and ends up being trapped inside it.

This abstract beehive is flexible enough to go many ways, evoking everything from the cheerful quilt and the sinister wallpaper to the plucky bumblebee and the oppressed worker. HIVE is light and dark, benign and malign, sweet and sour. And it's powerful enough to tame the bee. Not one visitor, knock wood, has yet been stung.