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Dreamlike and dramatic, Irish artist Conor Harrington’s work combines graffiti and renaissance visuals to comment on themes of gender and identity. Known for drawing together classic, renaissance painting styles and more contemporary, abstract techniques, Harrington’s work often has a dream-like, ethereal quality and frequently tackles themes of gender and identity.
Conor Harrington was born in 1980 in Cork, Ireland. He studied at Limerick School of Art and Design and received a Bachelor of Fine arts in 2002.
Much of his earliest work exists as ‘under the radar’ street art and urban murals around Cork, often collaborations with friends. As Harrington’s painting style has developed he continues to create street art across the world, but notably the artist has moved towards creating ‘gallery art’ and works on canvas. Harrington describes himself as a ‘painter’, rather than either a street or gallery artist.
Much of Harrington’s very earliest work took the form of street art and can be found around his home town of Cork, Ireland. Until this year Harrington had not painted a wall in Cork since 2005, during Cork’s year as City of Culture and shortly before his relocation to London.
In around 2006 Harrington started producing works on canvas, and prints and editions of these artworks. These early works borrow heavily from graffiti art in style. The subjects are often masculine, male figures, depicted in a dreamlike, graphic way reminiscent of comic books or video games. These figures are painted in a realistic style, reminiscent of Italian Renaissance masters Michaelangelo and Caravaggio, often with body parts covered by splashed, sprayed or dripped paint.
Conor Harrington’s success can be measured by the proliferation of his work, appearing in gallery exhibitions in London and New York, and as street art in cities including Bethlehem Wall, Sao Paulo, Paris, Copenhagen, and New York. In 2017 he painted a huge, high profile mural titled The Blind Patriot for art Basel in Miami.
In 2012 his first major solo show The Story of Us and Them at London’s Heni Gallery compounded themes found throughout Harrington’s existing body of work. Large scale works on canvas showed figures taking part in a reenacted battle; dominant colours of red and blue signify the opposing teams, elaborate historical military dress evokes questions over masquerading and masculinity. Realist painting techniques are paired with an abstract style more closely linked to Harrington’s graffiti art foundations.
Harrington’s work is widely collected, famously by Steve Lazaredes, one time mentor and agent of street art phenomenon Banksy.
Conor Harrington’s work visually brings together the old and the new. Heavily influenced by the work of high renaissance and baroque painters, the artist cites this period of art creation as fundamentally influential to the way he paints.
Of his recent mural in central Cork Harrington has said: ‘A lot of the city centre was built in the 18th Century, hence the historical stylings. I often use this era in my paintings but my work is rarely about the past as I like to use this dress code as a lens to which we view the present.’
In Harrington’s commentary of the more modern issue of modern male identity the artist uses historical costume and masquerade as a method of commenting, using the old to comment on the new and drawing parallels between cultural issues that transcend time.
Borrowing not only costume and character from the past, Harrington attributes his powerful, realistic characters and the way in which they are painted to the renaissance and baroque masters. Using techniques of chiaroscuro (the use of light and dark) with the depiction of almost hyper-real bodies in movement, Harrington emulates the drama and energy often associated with this artistic period.
Conversely, with artistic roots set in the street art scene of 1980s Cork, Harrington’s style also leans on more abstract, contemporary painting techniques. Sprayed, dripped, and loosely applied paint sits alongside more meticulously applied medium, whether the artist is working on canvas or on larger scale murals
When working Harrington uses pallet knives, brushes, and his hands as well as spray canisters to create these varying effects. The result is dreamlike and multidimensional.
Harrington’s recognisable style seems to consolidate as his work progresses and he continues to create art, both on canvas and as street art.
Works from his 2012 show The Story of Us and Them embody many key visual aspects found in Harrington’s work - realistic, high renaissance-esque depictions of the human body, paired with blurring, dripping and layered effects more closely associated with graffiti art. Grappling figures clothed in red and blue adorn large scale canvases, among which are some of Harrington’s most recognisable work.
Similarly, works from his later Fight Club series clearly evoke the artist’s visual style. Harrington staged a photoshoot with characters dressed in elaborate historical costume, the resulting artworks reference pop culture and graffiti art, tackling contemporary themes of image and masculinity, while using costume and painting styles evocative of a bygone age. This can be seen specifically in Fight Club (The Mess we Make).
Earlier this year Harrington made a return to street art in his large-scale mural on Grand Parade in his hometown of Cork, Ireland. Despite the change in format, Harrington continues to address themes seen before using his recognisable painting style.
Conor Harrington is married to painter Chloe Early, together they live in East London with their two children. He talks of Early as important to his work: ‘we’ve shared a two room studio up until recently, so we’ve been a huge part of each other’s practise’. The pair self publish prints and editions through Hungry Boy Books.
Currently working predominantly from his London studio, Harrington has said it is unlikely that he’d return to live and work in Ireland. When asked how he spends his time when not painting the artist answered ‘The gym and the telly. I’m just a mainstream dad at heart. No bohemian ways for me’.
Harrington’s work continues to grow in popularity, both street art murals and collectable artwork, and prices for his works on canvas, prints and editions continue to rise steadily.
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Dance with the Devil © Conor Harrington 2013
January 2015 saw the sale of Irish artist Conor Harrington’s 2013 painting, Dance With The Devil. Put up for auction at Bonhams auction house in London, the work realised £77,499 – a record for the London-based artist, who began his career as a graffiti writer on the streets of his native Cork. Painted using a combination of oil and spray paint, the work depicts a pair of men engaged in a duel. Between the men, both actors specially hired and dressed by Harrington, the flag of the United Nations is draped over a table; to the left of the image, the carcasses of two animals make pointed reference to the visceral work of Irish-born painter, Francis Bacon.
Image © Bonham's / L'Amour et La Violence © Conor Harrington 2013
In October 2020, L’Amour Et La Violence – a 2013 work by Irish artist Conor Harrington – realised £75,063 at Bonham's. Much like the artist’s most-expensive work to-date, the 2013 painting Dance With The Devil, L’Amour et La Violence depicts two men who are engaged in a duel. Markedly more expressive than its cousin, this painting makes use of gestural painting techniques that recall the abstract paintings of German artist, Gerhard Richter. Counting the likes of actor Jared Leto and world-famous musician Alicia Keys amongst his fans, Harrington has been active since the mid 1990s. This particularly successful auction sale, however, was one of his first ever.
Image © Artcurial / Tardis of Delignt © Conor Harrington 2012.
In February of 2015, Artcurial auction house in Paris hosted the sale of Irish artist Conor Harrington’s Tardis Of Delight. It realised €72,480 at auction, becoming the 3rd most expensive artwork by Harrington, who began his career as a humble graffiti writer on the streets of Cork.
The third painting in a series that focuses on the male figure, it comprises the expressive depiction of a man in period costume, who carries a dead bird. Recalling the abstract paintings of German painter, Gerhard Richter, it is a strikingly peaceful image when compared with other Harrington works, such as L’Amour Et La Violence.
Holy Smoke Quintet (Part 4) © Conor Harrington 2010