A Deep Dive into Symbolism: Orlando Caraballo and Jennifer Whitten at Akron Soul Train
Orlando Caraballo and Jennifer Whitten are a serendipitous pairing at Akron Soul Train, elevating domesticity through both subject matter and materials. Whitten’s Intricacies and Caraballo’s Capicú are on view concurrently through March 4th.
Cleveland native Orlando Caraballo is the education director at the Cleveland Print Room and earned his B.F.A. in drawing and printmaking from the Cleveland Institute of Art. His exhibition, Capicú, explores the effects of love, death, grief, and time on his place in his family legacy. Through drawing, printmaking, installation, and photography, he created portals that peer into the life of his ancestors. Each individual piece binds together to form a whole story, unifying drawn imagery, photographs, and written reflections to share consejos (wisdoms) distilled through family history.
Jennifer Whitten is a Cleveland-based artist whose work finds balance between product and process. Her art is about both the content of the piece and the way in which it was created. She is inspired by expressions of other cultures that capture similar ideas, from the pointillism of Aboriginal artworks to the sequined surfaces of Haitian Voodoo flags. She has her B.A. in Fine Arts from New College and her M.A. in Art Therapy Counseling from Ursuline College. Intricacies is a montage of modern minkisi, or power objects, using fiber-based techniques of beading and stitching along with assemblage and cartonnage (box making).
Caraballo’s art career began in response to grief, and he used it to process his experiences related to family, religion, grieving, and emotion. Capicú gave the artist closure on certain topics that began with his B.F.A. show. “This work needed to be made and shared so I could let it go,” he explained. The work is deeply intimate—Caraballo incorporated old family photographs, clothing, and memorabilia such as rosaries, baby blankets, and furniture. He wanted viewers to feel like they were walking in on a private moment and to cultivate a sense of mystery to the outside observer.
Throughout the gallery, Caraballo placed dominoes atop frames and incorporated them into three-dimensional works. The game of dominoes is the exhibition’s framework. Capicú is a moment in the game when you can choose how you want to win. “The rhythm and pace of the game of dominoes relates to the loose narrative threading throughout the show,” he said. When a player puts down a double-sided domino, it forces the next person to have to play off the double-sided domino. Caraballo said that this mirrors life experiences in which something happens, and you must respond. Any time one of the pieces had a double-sided domino, it references an event that had to be responded to. In the Caribbean, the game of dominoes is comparable to the social experience of playing cards in the United States. Caraballo even set up a table for playing dominoes in the center of the gallery.
Caraballo also added a cartoonish character, Marroncito (which translates into English as “little brown boy”) to certain pieces. Often, the character is almost translucent, visiting from the periphery of family photographs. Caraballo said the character is a modified version of The Little Prince. The story had an impact on his life and how he views childhood, grief, and coming of age. He adapted the avatar to be Puerto Rican and uses it to time travel. “The character stands in between time and peers in,” he said.
Capicú traveled from Youngstown, and the layout of that gallery was more open than Akron Soul Train. Caraballo knew these works would be experienced differently in a new space, and he leaned into it by placing altars in a smaller room off the main gallery. Crossing the threshold into this intimate space conveys the sacred nature of the altars. He explains that the work inside this room is meant to symbolize internal moments, while the works on the outside represent external moments.
One of the altars he created, El Principito (Remembering Reynaldo), was for his uncle who passed away at a young age. Caraballo needed members of his family to help him create the altar. His mother was helping to create the work and pulled out an olive-green suit and white shirt that belonged to his uncle—and then, Caraballo realized that the original Little Prince wears a white shirt with a green suit. He had an epiphany that the character Marroncito is an ancestor, which shifted the way the character is used.
Jennifer Whitten considers herself an assemblage artist and works predominantly with sculptural, three-dimensional forms, joining her creations with found objects. The spectacle of effort is an important quality in her work, whether it comes in the way of repetitive stitches, bead embroidery, or cartonnage. The idea of containment is important to her, and box making lends itself well to that. She learned cartonnage at the Morgan Conservatory as it is closely related to bookbinding. Whitten finds slow processes to be meditative, relaxing, and enjoyable—though the reaction she often receives from viewers of her work is that it would be tedious and time-consuming. “It feels like ease. I don’t need patience to do it,” she said.
She first learned about minkisi power objects from the Art and Power in the Central African Savanna exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. An object from that exhibition changed her perspective: a bottle of Wite-Out, wrapped and decorated as a talisman. This common, everyday object was transformed into a metaphor for correcting mistakes and righting wrongs. She was inspired to turn found objects into spiritual talismans through ornamentation, especially repetitive processes, like stitching and beading.
Whitten’s oil can pieces are her analogy for a masculine vessel. She wondered what the masculine equivalent of a mother holding a baby bottle would be and thought about the oil can as a metaphor for nurturing the machinery. She decorated them in ways that don’t feel masculine to challenge the dichotomy between the masculine and the feminine.
The series of Sashiko stitched pieces depict Narcan dispensers. Stitch patterns in sashiko are highly symbolic, with patterns signifying qualities such as longevity, resilience, and prosperity. Whitten created her own pattern of the Narcan dispenser linked with the idea of second chances at life.
Sticks and stones are elevated to treasures with painted patterns and cartonnage. Whitten sought to convey the universal experience of walking along the beach and picking up rocks, honoring them with these repetitive processes to make them more precious. “It’s an easy entry point to get acquainted with organic things,” she said.
Whitten created an entire series of hand tools, some of which are exhibited at Akron Soul Train. She was interested in how modern society, specifically the virtual world, pulls us away from simple hand skills and using tools. “It’s a dying part of our humanity, being able to make something with your hands,” she said. She collected tools from flea markets and secondhand stores that were worn. “The patina of use is there. The surfaces of the tools are well used and cared for,” she noted. That’s the part of the tool that she covers up to encase and protect those characteristics. Again, it’s a nod to her interest in containment, and it ties in her work as a counselor. Trained in art therapy, she uses the hand tools as a comparison to relational tools. For example, Patch Things Up is a reference to reconciliation between two people.
Both Whitten and Caraballo examine our relationship with everyday objects, reframing them in the context of fine art for deeper meaning and connection with the divine.
Capicú: Works of Orlando Caraballo, and Intricacies: Works of Jennifer Whitten
Wednesday – Saturday, 11 am – 4 pm
Through March 4, 2023
Akron Soul Train Gallery
191 King James Way
Akron, Ohio 44308
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