A SLICE OF A TREE: Negotiating wood block prints with Claudio Orso-Giacone
Claudio Orso Giacone is like a natural phenomenon, a hot spring of information and enthusiasm, especially when it comes to wood block print. The Oberlin resident has been making wood block and other relief prints since his childhood in Turin, Italy. In conversation, his stories are still delivered with a rhythm touched by his native tongue. He is busy on several artistic fronts, but the core of his artistic practice is the creation of large wood block prints– images measuring three, five, even eight feet on their long side. He has shown them across the US and in Europe.
Even a quick look at his work reveals a champion of the underdog in the struggle against the plutocrats, of the people against the interests of money. Orso works from a deep background of tradition: Black ink, transferred not with a press, but by pushing a wooden spoon as his barren for several hours on his larger pieces. It is perhaps not a coincidence that his prints exude sympathy for people who work.
The prints for his MFA show— which was at the Bryan Gallery at Bowling Green State University, way back in 2006–were crowded with allegory and politics, with a mix of English and Italian words carved to add sociopolitical commentary between the figures. He’s had his work regularly in group shows before and since, but that was the last time any Ohio gallery showed a significant collection of his prints.
Orso has won an individual artist fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council, has been a resident artist in the OAC’s exchange with the Grafikwerkstatt in Dresden, Germany, and has won several other grants and awards. He’s the creator of the Big Parade in Oberlin, a town event with a procession of floats and gigantic puppets. Also in Oberlin, he coordinates outreach for a media literacy program for students, the Apollo Outreach Initiative.
All of this against the backdrop of his prolific and distinctive body of wood block print makes it remarkable that he has not yet had a solo exhibit in the Cleveland area. That’s about to change. At the same time as it hosts the national Wood Engravers Network annual conference, the Morgan Conservatory will present an exhibit of his large scale wood block prints. Tavola Lunga (Long Board) opens June 5.
When he talks about printing, Orso gravitates toward the relationship with the material he’s carving. It’s a collaboration. If the material doesn’t push back—if the relationship isn’t a two-way street–he has less interest. That’s why he prefers wood block.
As he said while giving a demonstration for the Women’s Council of the Cleveland Museum of Art during their recent tour of Zygote Press. “Carving linoleum (another common material for relief printing blocks) is like talking to a ‘yes man,’ who just agrees with you all the time. It is easy and cheap. And sometimes you might want that, to make you feel good about yourself. But I would rather have a conversation with people who have opinions, because that is more interesting. Wood block has opinions. All of your images made with a wood block are negotiated.”
Indeed, he talks in detail and with implicit derision about the way linoleum is made from wood dust bonded with linseed oil, and therefore “has no soul.” And about how some printers make plates from medium density fiber board and call it wood block, which he says bluntly, it is not.
One might reasonably wonder where the opinions of a wood block come from, and how they are expressed in a dialog with the artist’s knife. The answer is in the wood itself. The grain, as all wood block printers know, asserts itself on the print, both in the way it steers the carving, and as it transfers the ink.
“Whenever I draw,” Orso says, “I am making a commitment, putting lines down on a plate, which in my case is a block of wood. Then once it is on the plate and I begin to carve what I drew, it is a different ball game. Because a wood block is made from a slice of a tree. And a tree was a living thing. It grows, and it has a direction of growth. That is the grain: the will of the tree. And so when I put my drawing on a wood block I have to deal with that. The grain has an effect on what you can carve. All images made with wood block are negotiated.”
He says one thing that has captivated him, holding his interest in wood block through the years, is that “it is all a trick.” What he means is that no matter how the image is shaded, no matter the depth or the perspective, or the impression of light, everything in it is either black or white, on or off, yes or no. It is completely flat. There is no gray area.
Orso cites two living artists as significant influences on his printmaking. His affinity with the work of New York-based sculptor and relief printer Peter Gourfain is immediately apparent. Both celebrate the humanity of their subjects, and both comment on the human condition, especially the struggle against oppression, against machines mechanical, political, and financial. They have been exchanging prints for 20 years.
The influence of Naoko Matsabara is less obvious, but the two share an interest in expression over precision. Orso says during a visit to her Toronto studio, she told him, “You good printmaker, but sloppy: need to work cleaner if you want to sell more.”
Looking at Orso’s work, though, what stands out is the expressive quality of the content, channeled through the force of the wood block’s personality. It’s all about the relationships between people and power, power and money, man and machine, the race of life against death, the positive against the negative, and ultimately between an artist’s intentions and a block of wood.
Tavula Lunga: Wood Block Prints by Claudio Orso-Giacone
June 5 – July 18
1754 E. 47th Street
Cleveland, OH 44103