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Hanrahan retrospective a tour de force

St. Dominic graduate shares her artistic talents

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Only a few weeks remain for Oyster Bay residents to view a 40- year retrospective of artwork by local native Jerelyn Hanrahan, a show that features an astonishing breadth of work, influenced not only by a lifetime of cultural curiosity, but by her decades working in and around some of the great artists in the U.S. and abroad.

Hanrahan, who graduated from St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay and was a close friend of Marie Colvin during her high school years, has charted something of a different course from the famed Oyster Bay journalist. But in sum, and as represented in the body of work on display at the Oyster Bay Historical Society through August 16, her trajectory has been similarly remarkable,

“Jerelyn Hanrahan: Retrospective” reveals a vast and diverse body of influences, which derive from the artist’s lifetime of intercultural experience and a more general dedication to allowing her curiosity and sense of discovery guide her aesthetics.

“You could say I cut my teeth in New York City in the 1980s,” she says, “but in Europe, I made artistic friendships for life and was exposed to the combination of disciplined craftsmanship and the social environment of artistic communities there.”

The work on view at the historical society “spans many mediums including luscious oil paints bursting with color and lyrical Matisse-like large curvilinear forms . . . drawings of a more intimate scale . . . [and] ceramic morphed figure-like objects that would fit in a Dali-meets-Disney theme park,” noted Barry Kostrinsky, president of the board of directors of Artists Talk On Art, based in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. “The common culture in what seems at first to

be an apparently mixed bag of jewels is Jerelyn’s spirit and sensibilities, which are both playful and serious.”

Denice Sheppard, director of the Oyster Bay Historical Society, agreed. “She has spent an enormous amount of time investing in her work throughout the years, and I was very impressed with her selection and genre of different art mediums used in her exhibit,” Sheppard said, “whether sculptures, paintings or abstract art. As an artist, I understand how difficult it is to reinvent yourself in each actual piece of work. Apparently, she has mastered each area.”

The artwork on display is organized sequentially to reflect key highlights of her personal narrative of cultural exploration, from her early experiences in Manhattan in the 1980s through several decades of work and study in Europe and the Indian subcontinent, each time returning home to replenish her connection to the base, in the evolving, cultural world of the New York City art scene. And, she is quick to add, to Oyster Bay.

An early example are her early expressionist portraits — thick overlays of oil on found objects, some of them from a series of strictly enforced two-hour studio sessions, during her time in Manhattan during the 1980s.

“It was a great, crazy time to be in New York City,” she said. “It wasn’t easy — in fact it was pretty dangerous back then — but it was fascinating. We had a real tribe of artists on the scene.”

Artist [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, wandered through, she said, as did rock musician Billy Idol. “He visited a studio I was working in and asked about doing a video there,” Hanrahan recalled. “Another time I witnessed a fistfight between [Village Voice art critic] Gary Indiana and [poet and painter] Rene Ricard. I saw [writer] Allen Ginsberg in the health food store and [actor] Steve Buscemi lived on the floor above me.”

From these works Hanrahan moved to larger figurative oils and plein-air paintings (the works “Fractals” and “White Birch”). These colorful and fanciful paintings, in some cases biomorphic, have a lot of light in them, and emerge from her study of biology and the fact that at the time she was working in a large, airy Chrystie Street studio.

The artist’s creativity grew once she went abroad. There are woodcuts, marble, sculpture and more in her Oyster Bay exhibit, where the viewer can share her journeys, as they experience Hanrahan’s early sculpture (“Graven Image”), and drawing (“Breastplate for a Queen”), areas she would elaborate in after her travels to Italy and India.

Of note are Etruscan-influenced vases (including “Vaso”), a decorative series of chastity belts and a number of flowing and finely finished ceramic figurines, conflating male/female elements, that reflect her command of both classic European robes and drapery and South Asian temple art.

Also of note are a series of overtly symbolic and surreal works that reflect Hanrahan’s concerns during her pregnancy and childbirth — a “protection series” that includes the very powerful “In The Haus,” which depicts the legs of a female form protruding from a confining box with airholes drilled into the top.

It is worth noting that there is a generous sampling of the daily drawings she did in a Rome studio, which are impressive.

New York City, Germany, India, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland — to get a full grasp of the cultural and artistic influences on Hanrahan and her art is no minor matter because, on balance. Hers was no mere touristic endeavor. The artwork on view represents something considerably more than an artist’s travel journal. In each of the phases represented, Hanrahan manages to achieve a fluency of voice that transcends imitation and attains a decided mastery of expression. 

“I have always given myself the freedom to change my voice, even in an artworld where people don’t always love that,” she said. “Over the years, people have told me to find a successful way of creating and ride it to the end, but I could never do that. My work is about curiosity, discovery, adventure — I can’t be corralled.”

Nor ought people to consider the retrospective as some kind of a finale. “I think of it as a kind of circling of the wagons, a chance to cleanse my work and move on,” said Hanrahan, firmly. “I can’t ever stop.”

The artist will conduct her last walk-through lecture of the exhibit at the Oyster Bay Historical Society, 20 Summit Street, on  Thursday, August  15, at 7 p.m. For further information, call (516) 922-5032.