In a time when we expect the most with the least amount of effort, where digital is everything, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter artwork that is so completely involved, so analog. Hand-pulled woodcut prints, especially those on a grand scale like tones displayed at Claudio Orso's latest exhibition, Relief Therapy, are an incredible feat.
It is a meditative process, creating these types of prints. The artist must first carve his image into a wood panel and then lay down the ink. The brayer, a tool used to infuse the paper with the ink, is next. Sometimes an artist will use a spoon to marry the two, as is often the case with Orso's works.
One way to describe them is big, textural and full of vibration. It's chunky without being clunky. Moving about the labyrinth of Orso's hand-pulled woodcut prints and clay sculptural works, we identify the cohesive dance between the two mediums.
Within the nucleus of the gallery sits five sculptures. Despite the heft of the clay, there's an airy quality to them. Muted tones of green, gray, salmon and bone, especially bone, coat the skeletal structures. Reflecting the woodcut prints, there are hashes and carved marks within nearly every piece. As noted by ceramic artist Kristen Cliffel, "Print and clay have so much to do with each other in their tactile nature, and I think that the mark making is always what he's after. There's such a good push/pull with the prints and, really, with the pulling of the press and all that stuff, there's a lot of impressions with the woodcut that also can be seen with the clay."
Including some of the wood panels from which Orso pulled the prints was a great decision. For "Danze dei Corvi" ("The Dance of the Ravens"), a piece depicting two wolves howling into the night, the panels neighbor the final artworks. "Querida" (dedicated to Mary Owen Rosenthal) is displayed on its own in the smaller of the two gallery spaces. Here we have a rare opportunity to witness the artist's hand. The faint perfume that wafts from the ink is intoxicating and we are almost transported to Orso's studio.
The two-dimensional work in Relief Therapy strikes the balance between heavy and light, both visually and in its content. We found it difficult not to get pulled in. "Icarus," at first glance, resembles a fallen bird. Only when we approach do we realize the poetry behind the image. The arm of the soon-to-be fallen son of Daedalus is trussed into his homemade wing, fingers clenched in a fist of defiance even as his feathers burn from the sun's kiss. The wording — "You Fall as Hard as You Fly" — serves as both prophecy and consequence.
"One Nation on Medication" shows a crazed, drug-addled personage, oblivious and smiling maniacally. A clock with broken hands floats behind him like a ghost. It's as creepy as it is psychedelic and possibly the only print in which Orso employs color.
The incredible "Stock Exchange" shows two skeletons locked inside a dead whale. This particular print is so riddled with information, one really needs to be with it for at least 15 minutes before the mayhem starts to cinch into order.
Then there are "American Woman" and "Once," both so large that they are displayed on the metal fire doors leading in and out of the gallery. "Once" depicts a person wearing a hat. On the top is perhaps one of many leaders in life's circus, ringing a bell and holding up a hoop for what we deem a possible shoutout to Icarus. Scurrying around the brim are figures with musical instruments. We are given permission to go mad once a year, as roughly translated from the Latin floating above the image: Samel in anno licet insanre.
"American Woman" shows a beauty queen, or perhaps Lady Liberty, with her shopping bag of guns and money, climbing the hill atop oil barrels, perhaps alluding to King Sisyphus, who was punished for his pompous and deceitful behavior by having to push a boulder up a hill for eternity. Her crown resembling a jester's hat at full attention, the self-aggrandizing beauty-queen-turned-clown is wearing a sash over her star-spangled outfit inscribed with the word antan, or "last year." Clearly her act has gotten old.
Claudio Orso is an artist's artist. Each artwork is a learning experience in both the visual and technically sense. In this exhibition, Orso weaves through the definitions of fine arts and decorative arts with ease, bringing them together as one and serving up the bounty of life.