Painter Helen O’Leary, professor of art, is currently exhibiting her work in a solo exhibition, Where Things Settle, at Coleman Burke Gallery, New York City, through June 18, 2011. Her lively expressionist “paintings,” which are actually disassembled wood stretchers, panels, frames and canvases, tell stories of defiance, survival, humor, integrity and harvest, gleaned from her rural upbringing in Ireland from the ‘60s through the ‘80s.
O’Leary’s childhood in Ireland was a life of survival where industriousness and invention born of need were placed on equal footing with rich literature, music, language and personal narrative. In her unconventional paintings, she cuts up wood supports into uneven shapes rather than the traditional rectangle, and forges openings and windows in them. Paint is then poured and applied with a brush, while the canvas itself is rarely seen except for when shredded paintings fill in gaps of the wood. A lover of literature, O’Leary considers this method of working a form of writing and narrative, recounting “tales of the trade” that speak symmetrically of struggle, loss and lament.
O’Leary earned her M.F.A. and B.F.A. degrees at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland. She has exhibited internationally, including the Beverly Art Centre, Chicago; National Gallery of Art, Limerick, Ireland; Glasgow Museum of Art, Scotland; Contemporary Arts Centre, Sydney, Australia; Kerlin Gallery, Dublin; and the Sanskriti Foundation in New Delhi. O’Leary has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Penn State College of Arts and Architecture Faculty Award for Outstanding Teaching; Joan Mitchell Award for Painting; Culturel Irlandaise and Guggenheim fellowships; and two Pollock Krasner awards.