Wall Power

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From the IAR Spring 2014 edition
Brian McAvera considers the leap from wall to gallery as a new generation of artists like Conor Harrington successfully negotiate both arenas

Is graffiti art a ‘good thing’? What’s the difference between a Diego Rivera, or any of the Mexican muralists of the 1920s who painted large outdoor murals on social and political themes (usually in an effort to unify the country) and the contemporary tradition of street art, typified perhaps by Banksy? You can see such work around the globe, in the poorer districts of New York or Paris or Berlin or London. On the one hand you have the actual graffiti scribblers, limited in talent and rarely able to spell, who disfigure railway embankments, the edges of factories, and motorway flyovers. On the other hand you have a growing band of urban practitioners who have technique and often a degree of talent who are frequently used as a kind of camouflage in the upwardly mobile journey of a given area. Much of this work is, of necessity, ephemeral. It covers the cracks en route to urban regeneration, it is of the moment, and thanks to the internet (to sites like Instagram, and the growing armies of bloggers) it attracts considerable publicity.

Conor Harrington initially might seem to be an unusual candidate for this arena. He was born in Cork in 1980, went to Limerick School of Art and Design from 1998 to 2004 but during his college years he was into graffiti art in Cork, the work being ‘on a much smaller scale and mostly illegal’. He had visited Derry when he was fifteen and was ‘impressed by the scale and technique on some of gable ends’ but rather than anything overtly political he was much more interested in the graffiti murals coming out of New York. As he felt that the Irish art scene wasn’t receptive to the kind of work he was producing, and as he could see that ‘a lot of artists in a similar position to me with graffiti backgrounds…were organizing exhibitions’ in London, he moved there in 2004, despite knowing that Cork would become the European Capital of Culture in the following year.

I don’t like the way graffiti and street art has so easily come under the spell of global branding but at the same time I understand that artists need to get paid in order to live from what they do

Within four years he had not only made a name for himself on the street art circuit but he had also joined the Lazarides stable of galleries, Steve Lazarides being Banksy’s agent (until 2009) and known for promoting street art as well as producing off-site exhibitions in places such as the Old Vic tunnels under Waterloo Station. Harrington regards himself now as a studio artist (though often working on large-scale paintings) who, when he has ‘cabin fever’, takes advantage of the fact that, during summer, many cities worldwide host events in which they invite street artists to participate. This, he says, is how the really large murals get painted. The smaller ones are more casual in that permission is asked from the owners of buildings: ‘on one occasion in 2010 I wanted to paint in the Middle East and make a short film about it. I visited Tel-Aviv in Israel and Bethlehem in the West Bank and painted on both sides, along with film-maker Andrew Telling. This was a self-initiated project and was funded through the sales of my work’. On another occasion he painted a wall on a Lurgan farm in Northern Ireland (Fig 7).

As the art market’s ability to swallow Installation Art (in theory an art made within a specific space which could not be sold) demonstrates, capitalism is no respecter of idealism. ‘Right by my studio here in London there are several different Street Art tours every day that visit all the local works on the street. At first it seemed ridiculous but obviously it can only be a good thing for us artists’. When asked what he thought of the new ECB Headquarters in Frankfurt where the bank enrolled numbers of graffiti artists to paint the surrounding fence, and whether he thought it was Art, Capitalism or a Tourist Attraction, he remarked that it was ‘good for those artists to get some recognition while at the same time making the face of capitalism seem friendly and open. A lot of street artists take on those commissions. Some I personally wouldn’t do myself. I don’t like the way graffiti and street art has so easily come under the spell of global branding but at the same time I understand that artists need to get paid in order to live from what they do. I personally have a no-brand policy’.

Oddly enough Harrington does not see himself as a Public Artist, more as someone who ‘occasionally paints in public…This isn’t to say that I don’t care about the public when I paint, but more that a lot of street artists and muralists aren’t asked to fulfil a brief when painting a wall. We are generally invited due to the issues addressed in our works’. What also attracts him is that ‘in a lot of cases it is temporary. A lot of large-scale murals are done on the sides of abandoned buildings which have a more ephemeral nature and remain true to graffitti’s anarchic roots in contrast to an officially sanctioned piece of public art. I have been asked to paint official murals for a number of public and private clients but have always declined their offer’.

Although his gallery hypes the socio-political aspect, ‘a central figure within the new breed of young artists tackling socio-political themes using fine art techniques in a context formerly reserved for street artists’ he himself, while remarking that many street artists are today making socio-political works, considers that his own work ‘has more political nuances in that I portray an imagined political elite with all their flaws and approaching downfall’. Put another way, there is little that is directly socio-political about his imagery. It’s a flamboyant, populist image-stream, crammed with nudes, militia and a strong sense of the theatrical, much in the manner of poster art. Originally the works were the product of a collage technique of found or appropriated imagery, with the juxtaposition of imagery giving rise – as it always does in these situations when disparate images are projected or squared up onto a background – to slightly odd dislocations of space.

Nowadays he writes a narrative, scribbles each scene into a short sketch, noting down any props needed for each scene and then he sets up the scenes like a video director and photographs them as in L’Amour et La Violence (Fig 3). These photographic scenarios ‘are the key to the paintings. I initially translate them quite faithfully but throughout the process of painting I start to break down the image. Someone once described my paintings as “a photo gone wrong”. I like this description as I aim to paint a scene of great wealth and power but I have hints of erosion at the edges’. Depending on the scale of the piece, he will square up the canvas and project specific images onto the canvas.

For outdoor work he starts by gridding the wall, a process which ‘can take forever’ depending on the size, and which is ‘my least favourite part of the process’. Then he will ‘launch into it with watered down emulsion to get a very loose and drippy layer’. Next comes the spray-paint: ‘I go in with the details where required as well as dissolving layers of spray paint over emulsion to give a highly textured finish’.

Now he feels that the indoor and outdoor work are coming closer together. ‘For a few years my walls were more of a side project…but recently I’ve managed to bring them closer together. On my walls I’ve started using squeegees and acetone to dissolve the spray paint so that my figures look like melting sculptures. I’ve been working in black and white on walls as it is easiest for me to work with a very limited palette when travelling and in the last few months I’ve started painting monochrome oil paintings in the studio as a direct result of these walls. My most recent painting Punch and Judy Politics (Fig 1) is a direct translation of a four-storey wall I painted in Puerto Rico (Fig 8)’.

A forty-foot wall can be painted in three days, whereas a ten-foot canvas takes Harrington up to a month to complete. Not surprisingly, the outdoor murals are, in some senses, an exploratory arena for him

A forty-foot wall can be painted in three days, whereas a ten-foot canvas takes Harrington up to a month to complete. Not surprisingly, the outdoor murals are, in some senses, an exploratory arena for him. He himself sees the outdoor work as being bolder. The materials are a mix of household emulsion and spray paint with a lot of solvents to dissolve the paint spray whereas in the studio it’s mainly oils with ‘a bit of spray paint’. As he comes from the New York graffiti tradition his interests ‘have always been within this subculture. Over the years it has grown and developed. A lot of artists who are painting walls and interventions now may not look like they come from that tradition but nevertheless it was the starting point for most of us. All of the artists from this new generation of mural painters are making highly considered works on a large scale and are globally acknowledged as serious artists’.

This is not the place to address some of these comments but obviously Street Art has much in common with Hip-Hop, with ‘sampling’, with an advertising culture which is based on appropriation (and which incidentally is always in the service of capitalism), with comics and the graphic novel, and with a television, film and internet culture which is also based on ‘sampling’. It’s a world which attracts celebrities and feeds off them and, potentially, as Northern Irish street murals have demonstrated, it is also a world which can respond swiftly to contemporary events. How durable any of the consequent images are is neither here nor there. If the graffiti artist/muralist gets it right, he or she is responding to the moment and, at the very least, is producing something which is much less of an eyesore than that of the graffiti scribbler. The knack, as ever, is in the transition from Outsider to Insider; from wall to gallery; from the ephemeral to the enduring image. If you want to see some of his work for yourself, he will be in Limerick in August this year for City of Culture.

Conor Harrington ‘New Work’ Steve Lazarides Gallery, New York, September 2014.
Brian McAvera is an art critic.

This article has been commissioned as part of the Guardians of the Irish Arts Review New Generation Project which aims to support and promote emerging artists, architects and writers.