There are hints of high drama in many of Clarissa Shanahan’s paintings, beginning with her first mature works from around 2010. With titles like Asylum, Cliff, Phantom, and Haunted Tree, these modest-sized works, not more than 36 inches on the longest dimension, often suggest stage sets waiting for a latter-day Hitchcock or Kubrick to cue the actors and bring the whole scene to thrilling life. Her most recent series, “The Grand Tour,” based on a photo album found in a Rome market in 1982, imagines an epic journey on a more epic scale (up to 84 inches long), as a robust middle-aged woman travels through the Middle East in the 1930s. She looks to be having such a jolly time you could imagine a “Masterpiece Theater” series based on her adventures.
Shanahan’s own journey to a kind of narrative painting that skips over recognizable forebears like Edward Hopper and Eric Fischl and arrives at something recognizably “filmic” began when she was 18 and moved to Brooklyn from central Long Island. “I wanted to go to art school,” she says, “but I wasn’t really ready.” So while living with her father, she worked as a travel agent, waitressed, and put in some time at an advertising agency.
A few years later, when she had a job making hand-painted wallpaper, Shanahan stumbled across an article on decorative painting in The New York Observer, a now-defunct paper pitched to upscale New Yorkers (and driven out of business a few years ago by first son-in-law Jared Kushner). The story opened her eyes to the possibilities of art with a practical but still glamorous edge, and she called every decorative painter and studio mentioned in the piece. “What stayed with me were the trompe l’oeil circus monkeys in Isabella Rossellini’s loft in Tribeca.”
The sources from the Observer story pointed her in the direction of the Isabel O’Neil Studio on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which, as its website advertises, “specializes in teaching traditional techniques to create painted finishes that imitate exotic and luxurious materials such as lapis lazuli, malachite, shagreen, tortoiseshell, Asian and European lacquers and marble.” Shanahan was especially attracted to its guild teaching system, in which students apprenticed with a master, and within a short time she connected with a decorative painting company. “I was able to make a living pretty quickly,” she recalls, “and was soon doing architectural gilding, and surface finishes such as faux bois, and projects like a historical 18th-century landscape mural wrapped around an entire wall.”
The world of scenic painting in New York is a small one, and its members are often in touch with other “shops” that do sets for theater, TV, and even restaurants. Planet Hollywood, a chain that was popular in the 1980s and 90s, hired her to take life-size black-and-white photos of celebrities and turn them into color dioramas. “Once you’re known in those circles, you go in and do the work, which could be anything from spackling to making surfaces look like old walls, or painting something to look like it was made out of wood or bronze.”
Through connections in the business, Shanahan was pulled into a lively range of projects: the Christmas windows for Saks and Lord & Taylor; a teddy bear museum for Japan, and even the restoration of a 19th-century horse-drawn carriage for a family outside Burgundy, in France. “Every single job requires you to learn new skills you’ve never needed before,” she recalls. “I had to re-invent the wheel all the time.”
But after five or six years, she was eager to work on films, and a gig for an HBO show at Silvercup Studios in Queens led to admission into the United Scenic Artists Union, a calling card for bigger things. “I was hired with one crew and stayed with the same crew from film to film,” she recalls. “I worked on different kinds of projects and with designers, welders, carpenters, painters, creative people. Since I loved film so much, I loved being part of it.” Among the movies she worked on were The Horse Whisperer, Meet Joe Black, Angels in America, and Summer of Sam.
Shanahan was also taking classes at the Art Students League and the New York Academy of Art, feeling her talents tugged in a different direction. She decided she wanted to pursue a fine-arts curriculum, but at a school that would be more like a 19th-century academy. At the ripe of old age of 32, she had to take the SATs again, applying to a number of schools, but eventually deciding on Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts because it had a joint liberal-arts program with the University of Pennsylvania.
The summer before she started school in Philadelphia, Shanahan worked on what she describes as her “dream job,” teaming up with her favorite crew to do the artwork for the movie Pollock. She was responsible for doing Lee Krasner’s paintings in the film; four others did Pollock’s; and the team recreated Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century gallery in New York—including paintings by Miró, de Chirico, Kandinsky, and others.
For the next few years she continued to do scenic work on breaks from her academic curriculum (projects included the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” and Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest). “When I started the program at PAFA, I said, okay, I love scenic art, I love the money and the freedom, but I don’t want to be on a scaffold the rest of my life, traveling all the time. I wanted to do more painting, but I didn’t know what that would look like.”
During the six years at PAFA and UPenn, Shanahan was also teaching courses (her expertise in gold leaf, for example, proved useful to the continuing-education department) and eventually working in a gallery and still doing occasional decorative jobs. Around 2010, the artist pulled together a body of work called “Mechanics of Nature,” which featured haunted glimpses of grand estates. In a continuation of the series two years later, ghostly shapes seem to be making their way down a grand staircase. In another, spectral figures traipse across the front lawn of a rambling stone manor house.
Shanahan’s preferred medium—oil and beeswax on panel—imparts a nostalgic glow to her subjects; they appear remote in time but nonetheless optically familiar, like old photos or the film stills that Shanahan sometimes uses as sources. When a gallerist friend showed her an intact photo album from 1933 that he’d found in a Roman market—the source for the series “The Grand Tour”—she was entranced.
“I am very much an image hoarder,” she says. “I collect images – film stills, vintage photographs, tintypes. They all sit in my back brain until they start to coalesce into an idea or reference for a new work. Sometimes it’s a composite of these different sources, or a straight interpretation of one image or a series of images. And visually film has seeped into everything I make—composition, depth of field, and other cinematic issues are all big influences.
“What I did for a living for more than 20 years inevitably breaks through in my paintings,” she continues. “Every step needed to happen before I could do what I want to do, and it took a while before I could call myself an artist.”
Top: Contrasti di Costumi (2018), oil and beeswax on panel, 44 by 60 inches