Hite's work connects humans, nature and art in dual exhibit at Hancock Shaker Village and Berkshire Museum
PITTSFIELD — Drivers along Route 20 will see a new building at Hancock Shaker Village. Tall and lean, clapboard somewhat worse for wear, sides not quite true — and at 10 feet tall dwarfed by its historic neighbors.
The diminutive dwelling is one of four installed at HSV for "Living on Earth: The Work of Robert Hite," a solo exhibit of the multifaceted artist's work across two locations that include the Berkshire Museum, marking a new collaboration between the two cultural institutions.
Around the village, a low, rusted steel shack squats on stilts; a brilliant-blue freestanding fence is topped with birdhouse-sized huts; and a looming tower awaits morning glories to climb its trestle.
In the Poultry House gallery, colorful, complex landscape paintings sport simple line depictions of a birdcage, windmill and houses, alongside freestanding and wall-mounted "dwellings" complete with sagging roofs and trailing roots, as well as two de-saturated photographs on metal of misty, mysterious structures enfolded by nature.
The Berkshire Museum's companion exhibit will open on June 30 with an artist's talk and reception. Dramatic black-and-white photographs (plus a few in vivid color) depict enigmatic ramshackle buildings perched precariously on a hill, by a swamp, over a lake or under seemingly giant trees, the eye deprived of any sense of scale. Also on display are six of the sculpture subjects themselves, their modest size fully exposed.
Both exhibits run through Oct. 30 and collectively chart the progression of Hite's artistic career.
Born in 1956 and raised in rural Virginia, Hite knew from a very young age he would become an artist. "Painting is my first love," he said before the recent HSV exhibit opening. "Everywhere I've gone has come from the paintings."
Originally a successful abstract landscape painter influenced by van Gogh and Paul Klee, he started adding line-drawn icons to his work: a clothes line, shack, fence line, chairs.
"An icon represents a thread of culture," he explained. "A lot of times it's sociological, going back to my childhood experiences which were heavily informed by race disparity."
He began building three-dimensional pieces "almost as references, like little maquettes," he said, that he subsequently placed in the landscape and photographed.
"They're portraits of sculptures with a narrative that I have in my mind about what happened in the building, what it represents," he said.
His houses are typically shown perched on spindly stilts. "Aesthetically, it represents the transitory nature of buildings and us," he said. "It's almost like it biomorphics the structures."
In 1998, Hite relocated with his family to an 1840s church in the Hudson Valley, where his high-ceilinged studio helped increase the scope and scale of his sculptures. He works mostly with found materials such as construction site cuttings, lath, old window blinds.
"The fact that they are recycled materials resonates with the Shakers who were always recycling things — buildings, paper, almost everything," noted HSV curator Lesley Herzberg. "When I see these pieces of other things, that speaks directly to the Shakers and their sense of conservation."
Hite is currently experimenting with welded metal to create longer-lasting work. "I really try to keep working instinctually, which allows room for evolution to happen," he said. "If you over-intellectualize, you can lose the poetry of it all."
Hite's work is informed by extensive travels to impoverished regions around the world, from south of pre-Katrina New Orleans to South America, where he photographs vernacular houses after first getting to know neighborhood residents and their stories to ease his access.
All his work, Hite says, speaks to the same themes of humanity or empathy for nature and for man. "My gaze is often looking back at phases of American and family history and an homage to people who live with not much in the way of resources," the 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship winner said.
At HSV, he found additional inspiration from Shaker gift drawings including "A Bower of Mulberry Trees" by Hannah Cohoon. "She would see a tree shimmering, see the light in it, and I really responded to that," Hite explained. He plans to create a grape vine bower this summer at HSV.
"We're constantly looking for connections between art and the natural world," said exhibit co-curator, Maria Mingalone, Berkshire Museum's director of curatorial affairs and collections, "and to this idea of storytelling, interpretation and how we can connect people to objects and artists."
"This is a perfect show for both of us," said Herzberg. "Everything Robert does in connecting humans, nature and art works for both of our sites so seamlessly."
At the Berkshire Museum on July 9, workshop participants can create dwellings from wood scraps and natural materials, which they will take to HSV and photograph. Visitors can also build "Spirit Houses" using found materials along village woodland trails on July 17.
"A lot of art is so static or crystalline it doesn't leave room for the viewer to participate," Hite explained. "You want to leave room for the imagination."
What: "Living on Earth: The Work of Robert Hite"
When: Through Oct. 30
Where: Hancock Shaker Village, 1843 W. Housatonic St. (Route 20), Pittsfield / Berkshire Museum (beginning June 30), 39 South St., Pittsfield
Hours: Hancock Shaker Village — 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily / Berkshire Museum — 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon-5 Sunday
Admission: Hancock Shaker Village — $20 adults; $18 seniors and active military; $8 youth (13-17); free (13 and under) / Berkshire Museum — $13 adult; $6 child (under 18); free (3 and under and museum members)
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