Usually standing between six and ten feet tall, Robert Hite’s twisting towers have the wavering, unsteady quality of buildings reflected in a pond. In his photos of them, they often are. In his paintings, they take on an even-more-fantastical shape. Hite is a multitalented artist, born in Virginia and living in Esopus. He’s preparing for his third solo show of the year, this one at the Wired Gallery in High Falls.
Entering Hite’s studio – a converted Methodist church from the 1840s – you encounter a cross-section of a bedroom with weathered walls, an old iron-framed bed, sparse décor and a small pair of antique black boots. “He’s a small, wiry man now,” says Hite of the fictional resident. The boots, he says, appeared much larger on eBay. The inhabitant of the set, though, is more than a vision of Hite’s imagination: He was inspired by Jake, a homeless man living in an abandoned building whom Hite met in the summer of his ninth or tenth year.
Hite describes his memories of Jake as “very shadowy. I have memories that I don’t even know if they’re real anymore. I’ll firm them up with fiction.” It’s not an admission, but an observation. The intersection of the real and the imagined is prominent in Hite’s work. “We’re always reinterpreting the past,” he says. His 2011 show at the Nassau County Museum of Art was titled “Imagined Histories”: a name that reflected not only Hite’s own murky recollections, but also the tales of his viewers. “People find their own stories when they see the work – visit their own narrative within them.”
“Narrative” is a word that Hite returns to often, and it’s apt. He doesn’t discuss his work in deliberate quotes, but in fragments, often stopping midsentence to rethink and rephrase. Similarly, his pieces read as fragments of a narrative rather than as succinct, overt messages. He’s as much, if not more, part of the Southern literary and cultural traditions as he is a part of the contemporary art world.
Hite’s sculptures of warped, ramshackle dwellings are evocative of worn-in houses resourcefully constructed from available materials. Some appear to be sagging with age, others intentionally and whimsically distorted. But all provoke a viewer’s curious inspection. Resembling misshapen dollhouses, the intricate sculptures tempt you to peer into their windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of the lives inside. Though unlit and unfurnished, they’re nonetheless mesmerizing, particularly because of their weathered appearances.
Searching for the words to describe the unplaceable intrigue of an old building, Hite says, “I feel a nostalgia about – there’s something visceral about – looking at older structures.” His fascination is more than just a momentary curiosity, though. While some of his sculptures – particularly when memorialized in Hite’s black-and-white photography – evoke a pleasantly eerie wistfulness, he believes that old buildings, and especially ones built from “found” materials, “include narratives of the lives that have taken place in these buildings.” Every notch in wood and each layer of paint allude to a place’s private history. Where Hite grew up, “one row of houses was built from the unacceptable wood from a sawmill. That made it living sculpture to me. Time will do that, too.”
Hite often looks for influence in what he calls “modest” dwellings. After receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 2014, Hite visited Little Corn, a small island in Nicaragua. A video of his, titled Little Corn, documents the trip through visuals of the houses and their inhabitants with no editorializing. Trips like this inform Hite’s work. His sculptures bear many compositional and structural similarities to the houses.
Though Hite respects these dwellings for their simplicity and admires their builders for their resourcefulness, his pieces reflect the knowledge that these houses exist as a matter of necessity. Of his recent work, he says, “There’s a whimsy in these pieces, but also pathos and an ominous quality.” While Hite hopes to capture an unusual beauty, he also wants his work to “somehow have a dialogue with the underbelly of who we are, too.” Many of his structures resemble the tumbledown homes from Hite’s native South. Although he grew up comfortably, he was aware from a young age of the racial and economic disparities surrounding him. “There was a thread of violence or oppression or suppression – an undertone that wasn’t benign.”
“I don’t overtly speak to that, always,” Hite adds. Rather, his pieces hint at the lives lived inside the houses. They invite curiosity and introspection, while their stilted legs, uneven roofs and shabby siding are an unsettling reminder of the fragility and impermanence of both structures and memories. Hite says that they are “an homage to people with lives that don’t get noticed so much. All of these stories are important to our culture.”
The great strength in Hite’s work is its ability to unveil without being exploitative, to remain understated without being banal. His photographs, sculptures and now his set do not offer a single, straightforward message that can be readily digested. Though Hite may aim to shine a light on the overlooked, many themes in his work are universal. The “frailty” of his sculptures serves as a reminder of transience, while their composition and sometimes their placement speak to the relationship between man and nature.
“Even though they’re seen as sculpture, they’re elements of photography,” says Hite. The twisted buildings are often featured in natural settings in his black-and-white photographs. Standing independent of the context of galleries and other sculptures, says the artist, they often read as life-size. After seeing the sculptures in person, it’s hard to imagine that anyone might perceive them as real houses, but Hite says that it’s a common occurrence.
This year, Hite has a dual-site exhibition on display through October 30 at the Hancock Shaker Village and the Berkshire Museum. “Living on Earth” includes Hite’s paintings, photographs and structural installations. His exhibit at the Shaker Museum incorporates two site-specific outdoor sculptures, which he tried to integrate into their surroundings: a village dating back to the late 18th century, notable for its large and iconic round stone barn from 1826.
Now, Hite is in the final stages of making adjustments to Jake’s Room for his upcoming solo show at Wired, titled “A Distant Embrace.” It’s the first “set” that he has done for a show (though he has prior experience in set design), and it may be the only. Hite first showed his work at Wired in 2013, and said that its director, Sevan Melikyan, is “such a generous spirit to the community” that he wanted to create an installment specifically for the show.
“As a gallerist, it’s extremely satisfying to inspire artists just because I extend the space to them,” says Melikyan. The admiration is mutual. Melikyan says that Hite’s previous show was his first solo show at the gallery, and that he will be the only person to have had two solo shows at Wired. “The solo show is a big commitment,” says the gallerist, though he’s not at all hesitant to extend that endorsement to Hite. “He’s very much associated with one of the highlights of this gallery’s career.”
Hite’s use of various media is key to his adaptability. While he says that the “pressure to professionalize” can sometimes make his methods a bit of a disadvantage, it’s this same lack of “set parameters” that “keeps [him] compelled to do art.” Though he believes that it’s easier to be known for one discipline, he’s unable to settle on a medium: “I’m much more feral than that.”
“Robert Hite: A Distant Embrace” opening reception, Saturday, August 20, 5-7 p.m., through September 18, Wired Gallery, 11 Mohonk Road, High Falls; (682) 564-5613, www.thewiredgallery.com.