Go Big: Claudio Orso’s Panta Rhei
Claudio Orso’s Panta Rhei, on view at the Bostwick Design Art Initiative through March 10, is a big exhibit that resonates beyond its walls. It surveys some of the prolific artist’s most important work of the last half-decade or so, representing two aspects of his career: on the one hand, there are larger-than-life masks, costumes, and puppet figures made for community-oriented parades (one of which the artist founded), and even an opera production. On the other hand, and at the heart of the show, is Orso’s fine art practice, represented by a collection of five brand new, very current and very large woodcut prints on handmade paper, collectively named “The Children of Babylon (for Lillian Tyrell),” after one of the prints on view.
The new prints capture scenes created by what you might call the American Machine, in all its cruelty greased by capitalism, and in the face of that, the endurance of hope. Orso has a long track record of dealing with this material, but in the past he has done so in ideas and generalities. The prints in Panta Rhei, by contrast, have content based on the artist’s personal experience, especially as a teacher and mentor to children, especially immigrant and disadvantaged children–through various art outreach programs.
Having watched the production of these prints, there is a sense in which they are about a man throwing his body into the mill of physical labor. Carving the large plates is an arduous job, in which the artist fights the resistance of the wood. Orso talks about making images with wood blocks as a process of negotiation, because the wood has a personality expressed in its grain. The wood argues against the knife, and has its say in the quality of the lines. At this scale, it is hard work to keep pushing the blade forward, the kind of constant labor that can lead to aches and pains and even injury, like tendonitis or carpel tunnel syndrome. And after the carving, there is the printing itself, which Orso does not with a press, but a barren—usually a wooden spoon. He’ll ink and apply pressure for hours to get a single print. The huge investment of labor by itself gives these objects a kind of charismatic force, like gravity.
Even the making of the paper came with plenty of challenge and suspense. Orso and Morgan Conservatory Artistic Director Tom Balbo worked together over a vat large enough to require two people to pull out the deckle for each sheet. And to add to the challenge, Orso’s vision included adding color to his images by pulp painting in the slurry. Orso sees the faith and hope required to complete all the layers of this process as a metaphor for their content, that whatever the stakes, whatever the enormity of the ongoing investment, the belief that everything will flow: that the people in the schools, the refugees, the immigrants, the kids caught up in the criminal justice system, all might just come out OK, or at least be able to keep going, to keep the faith. Maybe.
The images in the finished prints refer to the results of inhuman immigration policy, the bullying educational system, and a whole culture of misguided “solutions,” such as Juvenile “correctional” facilities. Orso taught for four-and-a-half years at the Lorain County Juvenile Detention Center, and continues to teach art in various outreach settings, especially at Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District school with significant programs for immigrant and refugee populations.
I’m drawn generally to the prints by the energy of the carved lines, and the artist’s disinterest in realism. He’s not trying for accuracy so much as expression, not trying to dominate the wood so much as collaborate with it, or work out something both he and the block can agree on.
Having said that, some of these are among the more realistically composed of his woodcuts. You’d never mistake the print called Court Date for a photo, but the landscape–in which a detention home van delivers a 12 year-old boy back to the Lorain County Juvenile Detention Center –has all its pieces in proportion and perspective, including the American flag that hangs emblematically over the whole scene. That level of realism is not common in Orso’s works, which usually do include human figures, but frequently with surreal details and interruptions by blocks of text set in planes that cut up the space and by brute graphic force draw your eye around to all its corners. None of that happens here. This is just a stone cold look at a kid caught up in the system.
The story of that print is an example of the ways in which this exhibit resonates beyond its walls. The scene outside the correctional facility is the delivery of then twelve year-old Tony back to jail after his hearing. He was in jail for petty theft. Orso got to know Tony while working there. He says the saddest thing is that officers working at the facility told him Tony—a boy on the verge of his teenage years at the time—never had people come to see him on visitation days. Orso estimates that Tony is about 27 years old now. In a small room behind the gallery in which the print hangs, the Detention Center’s video of the scene plays on a loop.
The print Children of Babylon shows a line of children flowing straight from the door of a school bus into the door of the school building, single file. The school is Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy, where Orso teaches. “These are all scenes I witnessed,” Orso said. In this print, the movement of students from the bus to the school looks machine-like. Systematic processing dominates everything about the situation. The students arrive by bus, wherein they are packed tight, side-by-side in rows, and then the busses wait in a line in front of the school and take their turns unloading their cargo, and the kids—far from spilling out, or venting any energy in the school yard–march in a straight line into the school, where they will sit in under-staffed, underfunded classes and have their progress monitored and graded in a high-stakes system that will impact them for the rest of their lives. The print makes the whole process look like an assembly line in some factory.
In the print Ay, Raza!, Orso captures the precarious situation of immigrants trying to build a life here. The scene is based on Licha’s Market, in Lorain, which caters to the Latino community. A person sits alone at a table, drinking a big soda from a disposable cup, and watches the big screen TV, blearing headlines about the “Crisis At The Border.” Behind the TV, a placard reads “Ponte Trucha, Mijo!” Which means something like, “Look Sharp, son!” And given the context, that’s a cautionary note about minding the details, because any mistake could lead to intervention by the Immigration and Naturalization service, or the Department of Homeland Security, or the police. Behind the person is a rack of spicy peppers, all packaged for sale. The peppers–and the whole scene, really—are evidence that immigrants are just as entrepreneurial as anyone, starting businesses, selling products, making their way in the capitalist USA. And above him is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, watching over the situation and giving some measure of hope.
While sympathy for the people in these scenes ought to be natural for any human, Orso’s own life story gives him personal insight into the act of immigration and finding one’s way in a new country, a country of strangers and strange culture. As he says in an Artist Statement, the title of the show—Panta Rhei, meaning “Everything Flows,”- comes from the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. “This philosophical quote has been like a floatation device and a mental mantra for me as I left my birthplace and culture to come across the ocean and dive into a different life of my own making, first in Mexico, then in the US,” Orso writes. “I believe that leaving my environment, where I felt emotionally and creatively stagnant, saved my verve for life and gave me a wider field to explore and a worthy purpose to follow. Embracing the current of my inner compass, I came to a place where I found a partner, a family, an education, a job, and a career that afforded me the privilege of publicly being able to make a statement as artist.”
You’ll want to spend time in all five of the exhibit’s rooms. Each one relates to some aspect of the artist’s practice and life. The first one has sixteen examples from his constant output of small prints. In a corner room, a video plays, showing an Oberlin College Conservatory production of Master Peter’s Puppet Theater, a short opera by Manuel De Falla, for which Orso was commissioned to create larger-than-life puppet figures. The central room is filled with big masks and costumes built from colorful recycled packaging cardboard, especially the likes of beverage twelve-packs. These have been used in The Big Parade, a community participatory art event Orso created with Oberlin College students in 2001, and which has happened annually since then. The last corner room is filled with intricate cut-paper illustrations by Claudio’s son Paolo, presented on glass and mounted a short distance from the wall, to be viewed with their shadows projected by cell-phone flashlights. Paolo’s intricate, dramatic, and generally gorgeous works in cut paper, presented in a dark room, captured a bit of zeitgeist: visitors used their own handy cell-phone flashlight to cast shadows that set the figures in glorious motion.
Panta Rhei is on view January 24 – March 10, from 1 to 4 pm on Sundays, and by appointment. A closing celebration is scheduled for 5 to 9 pm Tuesday, March 10. Bostwick Design Art Initiative is at 2729 Prospect Ave., Cleveland.