Tommy Hite: Semi NeoClassical, Local All the Way

Oct 2, 2018

Tommy Hite. The Cocktail Waitress. Oil on canvas. Hite presents classic portraits with local and contemporary twists in his show, Semi Neoclassical, on view now through October 13 2018, at Aupuni Space, 729 Auahi Street in Kakaako.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Artist Tommy Hite is perhaps best known for his realistic paintings of dumpsters around Honolulu.  The ubiquitous bins are often in scenic locations, and who can forget Hite’s dumpster at the end of the rainbow?  His new show features historic European portraits, localized, for example, someone’s regal hat becomes a Zippy’s chili container.  HPR's Noe Tanigawa reports, it’s all in the details.

Tommy Hite. Cap'n Kook. Oil on canvas.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

When Tommy Hite isn’t behind the bar at Manifest in Chinatown, he’s painting, and his work is on view at Aupuni Space at 729  Auahi Street in Kaka‘ako, now through October 13th 2018.   Gallery hours are Wednesday 2-7, Friday and Saturday, 11am to 4pm.  

Tommy Hite is a representational painter, a recent BFA graduate from UH Manoa.  For his current show at the new Aupuni Space gallery on  in Kaka‘ako, he blitzed art history for inspiration.  Hite googled "classic portraits," and began looking for images he could modify or customize for more local relevance.

Tommy Hite. Ruff Luck. Oil on canvas. Most of the paintings Hite reproduces were originally done in a traditional, overglaze method widely used at the time. Hite's direct, painterly style is very different in terms of technique.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Hite:  Really, when I decided to look into the BFA, I was talking with a counselor, Wendy Kawabata.  She said to get into the BFA program, you have to have a specific theme, write an artist statement, you have to have a direction, basically.

Hite:  "I don’t know if this was her words, but what I got from that meeting, was that the most original thing that I know, really that I know the most, is myself.  So I try to keep all my artwork, close to home, closest to myself.  It’s not really so much about me, it’s about what I directly encounter and what I see, just on this ground plane. 

Hite:  Born and raised here, I see Hawai‘i in a different way than I feel like the rest of the world sees it.  Not just me, but anyone I’ve grown up with. 

Hite:  We all know that it’s not the same as it is advertised to the rest of the world.   Which I found very interesting. We all knew that.  There w as tht ehwole beach scene, but honestly, growing up, I never really went to t het beach.  I was just hanging out, getting into trouble, not too much trouble, but like skating and other stuff. There’s just a whole host of culture that out there that’s not emphasized that I found, why not?  Why not express this because this is cool, this is what I’m versed in.

Tommy Hite. Aunty Lady. Oil on canvas.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Currently, Hite works at one of Honolulu Chinatown's most comfortable and reliabley creative watering holes, Manifest, on Hotel Street.

Hite:  This is probably one of the most diverse Chinatowns in the U.S.   We have a punk scene, this bar scene, a craft cocktails scene, we have bistros, restaurants from Ethiopian, to Vietnamese food, Lebanese, Mexican.  Hawai‘i is a cultural mixing pot.  It’s just a really cool place and it’s so small and so condensed.

Hite:  That’s like mainly the influence on my current work now because I’m there every day, every other day, working in Chinatown.  Some interesting stuff happens there.  And it’s really big pillars of everything I’ve grew up with.  I feel that’s why I was drawn to work there and be there because it’s kind of close to home.  I see people from high school and before high school, it’s kind of a common draw, it’s a hub.  It’s an HQ.  I’m not a fashion person but I get the vibe from people walking around.  I’ve walked around Soho and I’d say of anywhere in Hawai‘i, Chinatown is the closest thing to fashionable people walking around, art scene, what not. It’s just a really cool place.

Tommy Hite. I Work Construction. Oil on canvas.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

The particular series of paintings on view now, grew out of Hite's art history classes.  Symbols are  embedded in classical still lifes and portraits.  Jewelry, particular accoutrements, a globe, a skull, a fly on a perfect flower, every element of some historical paintings were included for a reason.  The paintings could easily be decoded, their layers of meaning laid bare, by any one sharing that culture.  Today, Hite is giving some familiar hsitorical subjects a tweak of the nose.

Hite:  Some people just instantly get it, and they’re like, I get it, it’s like Hawai‘i but it’s got a different twist on it.  They’re supposed to be fun, they’re supposed to be relatable to the demographic.  I want people to be proud of being here, and just see a different expression of their home.  That’s kind of the premise of everything I’m doing here.  

The "gaze" of the person in a portrait has been a point of discussion, and some contention, over the centuries.  The uproar that greeted Edouard Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass" in 1862, for example, was not just because of the subject matter or the central female's probable profession.  It was the clear, uncompromising, and unabashed way she looked out at the audience, that some found most unnerving.  What do these subjects say with the way they look at us?