Robert Hite’s Dwelling

Robert Hite is a remarkable artist working through the mediums of painting, sculpture and photography. Rob is widely admired as part of the revival in Hudson Valley landscape art (broadly understood). As important but not as well understood, he is at the leading edge of animal art and the aesthetic reflection on human-animal relations.

Rob was born in rural Virginia, and has traveled and lived around the world. His influences are diverse. Early studies were at the Virginia Commonwealth University and the Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC. He also studied privately with the Washington Color School painter Leon Berkowitz, as well as with master ink brush painter Tham Sie Winn (Malaysia). Now living along the Hudson River in Esopus, NY, he works out of a studio converted from an old church.

I’ve loved Rob’s art for over a decade now. To my eye, his work combines surreal forms, skilled configuration of elements, and striking colour schemes. He has an uncanny knack for morphing forms and investing them with layered meanings, all without losing their visual identity. This makes his work accessible, richly complex and unpretentious: a rare combination indeed.

The glory of his art, however, is not in its visual pleasure alone, but also in the meaning it conveys. The quote below is from a press release by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) during an exhibition of Rob’s work in the Fall of 2003.

Hite’s work explores the realm where nature and humankind intersect. A sense of the delicate and transitory relationship between man and environment are aroused by bird silhouettes that punctuate smoke from a chimney fire and chairs that litter a yard recently vacated. His paintings and sculptures come filtered through a lens directed to the natural world, layered with gestures of human and ecological struggle and with a sensitivity for what is poetic and beautiful within this interaction…. Rob’s practice of using discarded objects both upholds and extends traditions of recycling and reuse that have by necessity been creative living strategies practiced by the majority of the world’s peoples.

These are good interpretations, and characterize much commentary about his work. Yet left on its own, this discourse of sustainability — of human privation, ecological struggle, and the global maldistribution of power and resources — is troublesome. Not because it is unimportant or lacks its own insights. But in terms of both Rob’s work, as well as ethics, it leads us in a direction with too tight a focus on human beings and ‘our’ environment. In so doing, the discourse of such critiques are silent about an indispensable element in Rob’s work. Animals.

Rob’s early work routinely depicts people and animals through painting. The people are physically invisible in our field of view but are nonetheless manifest through their constructions. And the constructions are almost always juxtaposed and integrated into a landscape of animals and wildish nature. In my previous introduction to Rob’s gallery, I described this as a theme of “dwelling in mixed communities”. For Rob, dwelling is about people and animals living in natural and cultural landscapes. His art prefigures a vibrant vision of a mixed community of beings who are human and non-human, wild and domestic.

I think much of his latter work manifests this same vision, if in a different way. Take for example the sculpture and photography project, “Imagined Histories”. Here Rob creates sculptures of dwellings with a mythical sensibility, installs them in the landscape of the Hudson River Valley, and photographs the result. Displays of both the sculptures and photos are then shown in galleries around the Northeast. It is a beautiful body of art, some of which is shown here.

These sculptures and photographs are not adequately interpreted in terms of landscape art or sustainability alone. Rather Rob visually resituates human endeavours as part of a more than human world. He depicts humans as the animals we are, embedded in all we do in the natural world, dwelling amongst and with other creatures. He implies this through the scale of the sculptures, and the wildish looking locales in which they are photographed. His whimsical, mythological forms allow us to step back from current architecture and landscape development. To remember bedtime stories and ethnographic traditions of animal-friendly cultures, real or imagined. To envision other possibilities for living on earth.

Rob scales us down to size, visually, aesthetically and morally. He envisions a more humble humanity. And in so doing, he reveals an aesthetic and ethical landscape where we might live in a truly mixed community of people, animals and nature.

You can view more of his wonderful work at www.roberthite.com.

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