Conor Harrington is an Irish-born street artist known for his large-scale artworks that blend contemporary and historical references to tackle modern socio-political themes.
Harrington’s paintings mix Renaissance influences with graffiti-inspired elements to create dreamlike scenes. His complex compositions are all executed with an Old Master’s touch; his bold line work, realistic shading, and depictions of the human form are all expertly achieved. Shrouded in the ethereal and the real, the past and the present, Harrington’s positioning of the human figure is used to highlight issues of gender and conflict in contemporary society. For this reason, Harrington remains one of the most sought-after young artists on the market. Formerly represented by Banksy’s former agent Steve Lazarides (of the Lazarides Gallery, London), his other notable works include: Fight Club (The Mess we Make), A Whole Lot of Trouble For A Little Bit Of Win and his Mugshot series.
Harrington grew up in Cork, Ireland, and went on to study at the Limerick School of Art and Design, graduating in 2002. Much of his earlier work came in the form of urban murals around his hometown. The freedom of expression and anonymity that came with street art attracted him, but as his art developed, he found that whether he was painting on canvas or a wall, his artistic voice was the same. He still believes that the scale of a piece of art can directly impact how much of an effect it has on its viewer, and so Harrington murals do still appear globally. Harrington does not consider himself to be a street artist or a gallery artist, simply a painter.
The process of painting on the street influenced his work as it transitioned onto canvas. Street art relies on multiple layers, adding depth to each colour and stroke over time. Harrington combined this layering style with historical imagery, ensuring his place in the ongoing artistic evolution, and positioning himself not only as a supremely talented painter, but as someone who could preserve and continue the art of centuries gone by.
One of Harrington’s longest-serving themes is that of the modern male identity and its place within the gender crisis of the 21st century. But to tackle this narrative, he employs the styles of Baroque and Renaissance painters, to map historical stories onto present day events.
While his use of Baroque and Renaissance influences was initially stylistic, over time this influence has bled into his choice of subject matter. In 2008, Harrington’s Weekend Warriors exhibition saw him utilise 16th century costume in his subjects as a direct historical signifier. Harrington’s piece Saint with the Power of Superman is one of his best-known works from this exhibition.
Harrington overlays these historical elements with hard lines, bold colours, and obscuring brush strokes to modernise his images, drawing them back to their present day associations. The final effect is dreamlike; a careful balance between realist and ethereal, and bursting with symbolism and story.
Harrington’s work became even more deeply immersed in its historical connections during his 2012 exhibition, The Story of Us and Them. He used his platform at HENI Gallery to explore the idea of patriotism. Every painting is set in a fictional world at war, but their themes and images can be applied to the history of every nation. His Baroque and Renaissance influences are even more profound in this body of work, as he invokes old war paintings to demonstrate the renewed rise in the ‘us and them’ dynamic. Figures are obscured and sometimes overcome by their nation’s flag, or they choose to use them as weapons against one another.
MOVEMENT AND COLOUR
Harrington’s medium of choice for his canvas work is oil paints, though his larger murals see him use spray paint as well. Though street art lends itself to bright, eye-catching colours to match its scale, Harrington initially preferred monochromatic schemes, believing that this kept a sharp focus on the marks and lines of the painting. His 2016 exhibition at Pace Gallery, which coincided with the release of his book Watch Your Palace Fall, saw him begin to use colour as a symbol in its own right.
The 2016 Pace Gallery exhibition also saw Harrington move away from another of his street art habits, dedicating less time to layering his work, and letting the process of painting become part of the narrative itself, to preserve the artistic process.
As Harrington began his elaborate battle-like depictions, he would organise whole photoshoots to collect reference images. But over time, as his work has progressed, the photoshoots have become more stripped back. He now focuses on capturing a moment, as much a moment of painting as a moment of action, rather than the narrative of a whole fictional world.
Harrington’s background in street art has opened doors for socio-political commentary that are not usually open to gallery artists. The graffiti and hip-hop art scene is rich in discussion around the male ego, machismo, and the role of the man within society. Harrington’s work brings this to the high-profile gallery and auction house.
Depictions of the male form within Harrington’s work demonstrate how, in modern society, men are pushed towards displays of machismo. Elaborate historical costume seems to simultaneously symbolise and undermine the idea of status; though visible in his characters, it is shown to be performative and skin-deep. With many of their faces left blank or obscured, Harrington links this performative identity to a loss of their true identity. Many of Harrington’s pieces, such as Fight Club and its various reimaginings, depict men fighting; their false status has led to internal and external violence: an assault on their individuality and a fight to preserve the performance.
Women sometimes feature in his work and are tackled in a similar way, displayed almost ornamentally in a mural in Grottaglie (2012), Italy, The Unveiling (2014), and works produced for his Dead Meat exhibition at Lazarides Rathbone in 2012.
ON THE MARKET
Harrington’s work grows in popularity as his style is refined, and each new body of work brings with it new insights from a critical mind. Most exhibitions are held in London, but street art can be seen across the globe, including Bethlehem Wall, Sao Paulo, Paris, Copenhagen, and New York.