Annus Mirabilis: Frank Oriti’s Great Year
A photograph appeared in the New York Times this past August, illustrating a profile article about the artist Frank Oriti. It shows him sitting next to one of his canvases in his Cleveland studio — a broad-shouldered thirty year old man, rocking an impeccable classic haircut and a somewhat severe vibe. He sits overshadowed by a self-portrait which is a bit larger than life, and while the real Oriti is bareheaded, his likeness wears a plain, dark-colored baseball cap.
Something about the image is startling. Both Franks make eye contact with the camera, projecting and multiplying his presence. The man and the painting look almost equally real, and that’s the source of the oddness here. Any photograph ultimately asks a question disguised as an assertion: “This is real” becomes, “What is real?” But the photograph of Oriti points at the existence of a further riddle, about the layers of identification and recognition that add up to a sense of self, and about the nature of our response to other people. And with paintings–which attempt to make not just a picture, but another world, a second chance–there is an extra dollop of “self” magicked into the materials.
Painting is always about the mash-up of paint and image under the close direction of the artist’s body, carrying its shadow in a tight embrace. In Oriti’s case, it’s hard not to give equal weight to the man and to his painting, hard not to give him two votes, so to speak. The same feeling of augmented, doubled vision haunts the actual portraits in his workspace at West 78th Street Studios. Examples of hyper-realistic manners are easy to find in the world of contemporary art, but few artists conjure the tang of reality as well as Oriti, or bring to such styles a comparable range of subjective, painterly echoes.
Frank has had a great year, though his career began to get off the ground a little bit earlier, in April of 2012 when his paintings were reproduced in the influential quarterly publication New American Painting. Soon afterward, before 2013 was half over, he had a show at a gallery in the Hamptons, was profiled by the New York Times, and in June won a Cleveland Arts Prize in the Emerging Artist category, bagging $10K, a spiffy medal, and a guaranteed ego boost. For a tyro artist from Parma who earned his BFA in 2011 at Ohio University and was barely known to Cleveland arts audiences as recently as 2012, this last event was a surprising coup.
Setting aside luck and fate, and the advantages of youth and a good attitude, Oriti deserves all these things. His paintings combine painstaking process with thematic coherence and a kind of inherent truthfulness, consistently pulling off that rare, hard-to-pin-down artistic achievement, a sense of life. He earned his good year, and it’s very likely that these events are the early signals of a singular career, driven by a powerful oeuvre.
Frank Oriti was born and raised in Parma, and while that town is not known as a hotbed of the arts it seems to have worked very well for Frank. Like most artists he showed ability as a child, but didn’t become interested in painting until his last year at Parma High School. His teacher there, Mike Jaszczak, later became a friend and supporter, eventually nominating Oriti for the CAP this year.
Oriti went on to earn a BFA in two dimensional art at Bowling Green University where he studied with the widely known master of contemporary drawing Charles Kanwischer, and received a Masters degree from Ohio University in 2011. In between he worked for two years at a steel mill with several of the friends he grew up with, and hung around with marines and ex-marines – a group which included his own brothers. Their experiences, particularly their state of mind returning from life in the military to northern Ohio’s stagnant economy, became the back-story to a series of portraits Oriti began to paint in grad school.
That tale is a saga of disappointment, about delay and hopes deferred, especially for people in their mid-to-late twenties. Prior to his career breakthrough and during the time when he was slogging away at his art while keeping a day job at a wall systems business, Oriti often felt the same sort of quiet desperation as his brothers and friends. Then, at some point, he realized he had found his subject. He says of those paintings, “They’re a type of self portraiture. More than that, the theme of returning is much larger than my own life, larger than Ohio or the region.” Homecoming is the subject of Homer’s Odyssey, after all, and of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
His show at Richard J. Demato Gallery in Sag Harbor was titled Homeland, a word inflected with irony given the guarded expressions that Oriti captures so well on the faces of his friends, and given his paintings’ bleak, abstract backgrounds. These tend to be rendered in visually active gestural swathes of white, as if these young people are trapped against hastily whitewashed walls. Oriti mentions that, buried beneath that white paint are renderings of the streets and houses of the old Parma neighborhood. Attentive drawing and patient layering in Oriti’s portraits, set against the barely concealed stage of suburban Ohio, enact a dialogue between dawning self-knowledge and deliberate repression.
Self-knowledge may be winning that debate. Oriti’s severe take on blue collar experience begins to soften, even as it deepens, in his latest paintings which focus on both men and women. They also often feature meticulous renditions of body art, adding yet another intermediate space for nuances of character and depiction to increasingly complex renditions of human personality.
“It’s hard to carry on those negative feelings in such an exciting time. Now that I’m thirty and there are people that I know still moving back home, the more recent portraits continue to describe this working class ethic. But it’s hard to keep painting the portraits that contained all that uncertainty. The theme isn’t as relevant.”
For better or worse, uncertainty may never go out of style. But neither will Oriti’s sure-footed pursuit of his own truth. It’s great to see an emerging artist actually emerge.