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Homeland Insecurity: Cleveland Artist Frank Oriti Looks at Life Back in the Cul-de-sac

Posted on 25 July 2013

Frank Oriti's painting "With or Without?" 2011. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 43" x 49"

Frank Oriti’s painting “With or Without?” 2011. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 43″ x 49″

By Annette Hinkle

They’re people you know, people you grew up with — and perhaps in some cases, they are you.

Artist Frank Oriti’s portraits highlight the faces of friends and relatives from his hometown of Parma Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. His subjects, rendered vibrantly and meticulously in oil, gaze out from the canvas — a look of resignation on their faces and uncertainty in their piercing stares.

In the background are the post World War II bungalows Oriti and his friends grew up in. But these are rendered in acrylic and white washed to the point where they practically meld into the background — faded memories and a barely perceptible reflection of the picket fence dreams which defined their parents’ generation.

While Oriti and his peers were raised on the optimism of possibility, Oriti’s portraits reflect a different reality — one in which 20-somethings with college degrees in hand or military service under their belts find themselves (either by design or destiny) exactly back where they started.

“I think with a lot of people I’ve grown up with and remained close with, we all have a way of accepting our reality, and the next thing you know, you have a house payment, a car payment, a girlfriend turns into a wife and you start a family,” he says. “All your dreams and what you really wanted to do are taking a back seat to your life.”

“I think there’s a lot of acceptance,” he adds. “That’s the best word I can use to describe what these people I paint are faced with — a lot of settling.”

That’s what happened to Oriti, at least for a while, after he earned his undergraduate degree in art from Bowling Green University. He returned to his childhood home in Parma and got a job at a steel mill.

“I was there for a year and half … and that was long enough to make me realize I had to go back to school,” says Oriti who enrolled in a three year masters program in painting at Ohio University.

That was 2008 and a fortuitous time for Oriti to be in school. It was the height of the recession and economic collapse, which Cleveland hardly needed after years of rust-belt decline, and as he honed his skills as a painter Oriti came to understand a lot of things about the world.

“I got there when I turned 25, those three years flew by, but they were very important in growing as a painter and a person,” he says. “I learned a lot about myself, my work and what it means to be a painter from Cleveland. So after three years, faced with the same scenario, I’d have another degree and a better clue about what I want to do.”

And when he came home from school this time, things were different. Oriti didn’t have to go back to the steel mill and instead, was given a solo show at a Cleveland art gallery the very day he returned. He has since won the prestigious Cleveland Art Prize for best emerging artist and was featured in New American Paintings magazine.

That’s where North Haven’s Richard Demato found him, and this weekend, Oriti’s work goes on view in “Homeland,” a solo show at the Richard J. Demato Fine Arts Gallery in Sag Harbor. The show opens this Saturday, July 27 with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m.

Ironically, of course, Oriti’s success comes from a body of work that explores the antithesis of success. The notion of leaving home to make one’s way in the larger world and returning (for visits only) as the conquering hero is the ideal. But it doesn’t always work out that way — especially these days and especially in hardscrabble corners of the country like Cleveland where things have been dicey for decades — certainly far longer than this most recent economic meltdown.

And long gone are the freckle faced friends of Oriti’s youth — replaced with the hardened and wizened visages of people growing into adulthood who have little to show for their efforts. How will the American Dream be defined for their generation?

“A lot of things we were told were possible — the house, the car, the white picket fence and being happy — are things very few of us have,” he says. “A lot of us are almost 30 and still trying to figure out what we’re going to do.”

Oriti’s subjects wear the blue collar outfits that speak volumes about where they stand on the ladder to success. Many have college degrees or military experience. Some did hold positions of power in big firms in bigger cities, but were laid off and now work at local restaurants. One friend was a college hockey star who didn’t make it to the NHL and is back at the steel mill — albeit in a white collar office job and “not in the muck, like I was,” notes Oriti.

“That’s why I’ve stuck with this body of work,” he says. “There are so many different things feeding into this theme. The sense of memory, the sense of a longing for a past time, our relationship to this space versus separation from this.”

“As people we’ve grown and matured,” adds Oriti. “When we’ve moved back home, it’s like we’ve outgrown these places that hold memories of childhood.”

While the notion of escape versus resignation is particularly relevant for those who grew up in the troubled industrial cities of the Midwest, Oriti is hoping these faces strike a chord in a range of viewers.

“I’m always interested in how many people say ‘I know this guy. I worked with or grew up with this guy who is stuck, in a sense,’” he says. “One of my goals in painting is that relatability. I’ve always loved that romantic thought of someone walking up to a piece of artwork and bringing something of their own history to it.”

As far as the subjects themselves, the question, of course, is how did Oriti’s friends feel about being portrayed in paintings that are about not living up to those great expectations?

“I worried they felt I was ‘doing them wrong,’ but I think there’s something to be said about spending so many hours on them — each painting takes two to three months,” says Oriti. “At the same time, I feel there’s something very interesting in putting that blue collar work ethic into a painting, as well as painting that class of people in a style mainly reserved for the upper class.”

“One of the mainstays is that working class background, and the striving to be resilient and bounce back because we come from these hard working families and neighborhoods,” says Oriti. “It is a way of honoring my past, my personal history as well as my relationship to these guys.”

“Homeland” opens Saturday, July 27, 2013 with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. at Richard J. Demato Fine Arts Gallery, 90 Main Street, Sag Harbor. The show runs through August 23. Call 725-1161 for details.

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