Richard Hagerty captures surreal worlds on canvas

An opening reception for Richard Hagerty, who created this 2008 Piccolo Festival poster image, will be held Thursday for his new art exhibit, “American Surrealist.”

Even though Salvador Dali is the most well-known surrealist painter, the realm of surrealism is deep and wide with talent.

And delving into surrealist art is a fun, twisted journey into warped regions of imagination. But it can also stimulate the senses and trigger deep thought for the viewer.

As a young, impressionable high school student, I remember seeing Rene Magritte’s portrait of a pipe, “The Treachery of Images,” for the first time. In a single painting, any preconceived notion I had about art was shattered. I’ve been a devotee of surrealism ever since.

Artist Richard Hagerty follows the tradition of surrealism through his multitude of paintings.

A physician and surgeon by trade, Hagerty began painting before medical school, an exercise that sharpened his hand and eye coordination. In addition to his work as a surgeon, however, Hagerty is a former Charleston City Councilman and has been selected as the Piccolo Spoleto poster artist three times as well. Well-versed in both the pragmatic and the creative, Hagerty is a self-taught artist who inhabits multiple worlds. But the worlds of dreams and the realms of the unconscious are what Hagerty captures in his art.

“Painting is the language of the unconscious,” Hagerty declares on his website. “The act of painting itself is as close as we get to dreaming in a conscious state.”

Hagerty’s paintings are vivid in both their colors and his subjects’ manifestations. And those subjects are wild and varied; their energy on the canvas is palpable. Exploring disciplines as varied as astronomy, religion and mythology, Hagerty pins down specific aspects of each one and examines their physical and metaphysical shape and form.

Animals, landscapes and the cosmos appear alongside one another and fight for attention amid a bold use of colors. Rather than capturing a single, identifiable image, as Magritte and other artists do, Hagerty’s art is akin to the fantastical realms of Dali and the ordered chaos of Max Ernst. To be able digest all of Hagerty’s nuance and vibrancy means that you might have to set aside an hour or more. And that’s just for a single painting.

Hagerty’s body of work is enormous and spans over four decades. And much of it will be on display in a retrospective exhibition at the City Gallery, sponsored by City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, starting Nov. 20.

Since Hagerty’s collection of work is so vast and can’t be captured in a single exhibit, a new collection of his career was recently published by Evening Post Books, “American Surrealist: The Art of Richard Hagerty.”

Together the book and the exhibit provide an in-depth and worthwhile overview of Hagerty’s process, various mediums and his art. Additionally, an opening reception and two artist talks will be held and all are free and open to the public.

Surrealism always has been a creative movement that explores the unknown and challenges perceptions. Hagerty, a dedicated artist and seeker, rises to that challenge through his body of work.

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