Bringing Some of the Rust Belt to Sag Harbor Frank Oriti’s Paintings at Richard J. Demato Gallery

Bringing Some of the Rust Belt to Sag Harbor Frank Oriti’s Paintings at Richard J. Demato Gallery

The words “rust belt” aren’t heard together often in the verdant Hamptons, unless someone is chatting about a fashion accessory. It is just as unusual for a young former steelworker to have a solo exhibition there.

“Homeland,” at the Richard J. Demato Fine Arts Gallery in Sag Harbor, N.Y., is exhibiting the work of Frank Oriti, who paints detailed portraits of blue-collar protagonists, mostly relatives and friends from Parma, the Cleveland suburb where he was born and raised, and fellow steelworkers from the mill where he and his brother, a former Marine, labored. The paintings depict 20-somethings, mostly men, dressed casually in T-shirts and baseball caps, gazing out impassively, or with an edge of aggression. Mr. Oriti repeats motifs of the suburban homes like the ones his subjects grew up in, in gray-toned backgrounds, then paints over them in messy white acrylic. In many cases the subjects have returned not just to Cleveland but to their childhood houses. It is an unsettled homecoming, resignation etched on young faces.

“It’s hard being in the world and going back to a place with so many childhood memories, when as a person you’ve matured,” he said. “You get this effect of this fading memory of a place they once knew.” In April Mr. Oriti won a Cleveland Arts Prize, an annual award, as an emerging artist “whose original work has made Northeast Ohio a more exciting place to live.” Now back in Cleveland, Mr. Oriti, 29, recently spoke with Erik Piepenburg about his work. These are excerpts from the conversation.

Frank Oriti's “With or Without” (2011)

Frank Oriti's “With or Without” (2011)

Q. Your style is very naturalistic, and the people you paint seem very real.

A. With the exception of two commissions in the Sag Harbor show, they are people I have grown up with. A lot of the people share the same story that I was dealing with, in that we all in our own way attempted to escape that suburban landscape and go our own way, by going to college or the Marines. For some reason we ended up back in the same area. A lot of us grew up with the assumption that if you work hard anything is possible, and that so much can come of going to school and getting good grades. But when we’ve done those things, that’s not always the case.

Q. What do the people you paint think of your work?

A. They’re excited to see themselves painted. At first I was afraid that they would think I was pointing them out as being unsuccessful or failures, and that was something that really bothered me. But these portraits are painted with love and care and attention to detail.

Q. You once worked at a steel mill. That’s an unusual place to find a portraitist.

A. I worked at American Tank and Fabricating. They did a lot of military jobs. I worked on a project that fabricated I and T beams for aircraft carriers.

Frank Oriti's “Summer Help” (2012)

Frank Oriti's “Summer Help” (2012)

Q. Why did you decide to work there?

A. I had moved home from college and I knew that I wanted to make art, but I had to start paying back college loans. My brother, who moved back to Cleveland after being in the Marines, had been working at this steel mill. I would go around and take measurements on different parts of the fabricating process. I did a lot of grunt work, unloading trucks and moving parts around. I ended up working there for about a year and a half, which was long enough for me to realize I needed to go back to school.

Q. Do you paint from photos, or in a less structured way?

A. Each person is photographed anywhere from 40 to 100 times, and I work from those photos by the photographer I share a studio space with, Peter Larson. I project the image onto canvas, and then am able to put down the basic lines of the image. From that I use the photo as a map or reference, and I continue looking and painting and looking and painting.

Q. You came to Sag Harbor for the opening. What was it like to spend time there?

A. You see a lot of fancy cars and fancy people walking around. But in Sag Harbor it’s more laid back, like an artsy community. It’s cool because it has an old-fashioned Main Street, mom-and-pop kind of scene, but it also has nice restaurants and bars. There are people who come from a more high-class lifestyle. Being from Cleveland, it took me a while to get into the swing of things.

Q. What’s it like to work as a painter in Cleveland?

A. I have a lot of studio to move around in. A friend told me the average rent for a Brooklyn art studio is like $1,200 a month for 500 square feet. I share 1,400 square feet and we each pay $400 a month. I couldn’t even come up with how much that would cost in Brooklyn.

A version of this article appears in print on August 16, 2013, on page C26 of the New York edition with the headline: Bringing Some of the Rust Belt to Sag Harbor.


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