Richard Eagan describes himself as “kind of a codger, in terms of art.” Instead of following the predictable path of art school, his career began with woodworking, then segued into art-making, followed by shark training, beekeeping, and cross-dressing. In other words, he’s a real Brooklyn character.
His artwork often references Coney Island, the fetishized, nostalgia-steeped, and now culturally threatened seaside amusement space not far from his lifelong home. It was under the canopy of rainbow-tinged metal limbs that Eagan vacationed with his grandfather as a young boy, partied with his peers as a young man, became involved in the artistic community and co-founded the Coney Island Hysterical Society, a group of 12 artists who resuscitated rides and infused sideshow attractions with art.
“It was like the Wild West,” Eagan says of Coney Island in the early 80s, where he renovated and operated an old ghost ride called “The Dragon’s Cave.” “It was like an open-air nightclub for all the homeboys and the knuckleheads and the crazies.” Eagan also worked a thrill show where “a large saltwater tank held three sharks, and this depressed Belgian woman would swim with them.” Eagan, in his self-possessed, fearless fashion, naturally hand-fed the sharks.
He is equally unafraid of things that sting. Though he’d wanted to keep “goats or sheep” at his part-time home upstate, in Schoharie County, Eagan soon realized that bees were “livestock that didn’t need constant supervision,” so he traded his dreams of counting sheep for beekeeping. When asked about the dangers involved, he replied, “Have you ever watched the Dog Whisperer? Confidence and surety go a long way.”
Eagan’s artistic career began in 1978 after a series of dreams “about my charismatic grandfather in Coney Island, where he used to take me.” He transforms these ghosts of memories into concrete, brightly colored objects that look part-artifact, part-artifice. “Construction Paintings” is what he calls his work, an alchemical mix of the architectural, the sculptural, and the painterly, united in dialogue by his constant use of wood as a material and his spiny, sea urchin-like shard motif.
For his latest show, “Obscured Offerings,” on view at 440 Gallery in Park Slope through February 15, Eagan brings his shards to bear on the aesthetic of Coney Island. In it, innocuous-looking Funhouses conceal gang violence (like “Funhouse,” above) and strips of treated lath, a thin wood designed to support the interiors of old plaster walls, stretch gingerly across his canvases, like fragile ribs protecting vitals beneath.
This doubling impulse is echoed in his personal life; Kay Sera, his female alter ego, is the Superman to his Clark Kent. The Diva MC’d the weekly karaoke night at Red Hook’s Hope and Anchor for six years (she still makes guest appearances, but “five and a half years of weekend nights was enough”), and currently co-hosts the Mermaid Parade. Kay also acts as the spokesmodel for Eagan’s home-farmed wildflower honey, Kay Sera’s Zippy Bee Honey, sold for $8 at Marlow & Daughters and coming soon to Grab.
While one might be quick to dismiss Ms. Sera as an artist’s marketing gimmick, Eagan’s alter ego is a vital part of his identity, and his work. “By exploring the womanly, transgender aspects of my personality, I came to the full realization of my importance as an effective man in this world.”
So why, after all these years — the artist says he is “old enough to have seen the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field, thank you” — and multiple pursuits, does Coney Island still figure so prominently Mr. Eagan’s work?
“How could it not? Coney Island is the seedbed of fantasy, dreams, the bizarre, unusual and unexpected. As they say, ‘Once you get the sand in your shoes, you can’t shake it out.’ ”
Sent by Nicole. Text by Jocelyn. Top portrait and “Funhouse,” 2008, courtesy Richard Eagan and 440 Gallery. Kay Sera photo via Hope and Anchor.