Dublin Contemporary 2011 can probably be pinpointed as the moment when street art officially entered Ireland’s fine art fold. It was more of an adoption than a mutual embrace, a “let us take you in and show you how the professionals do it” on the part of the flashy, eight week international art exhibition, an apparently generous opening of the doors. But just underneath that thin veneer lay the art world’s neediness, its desire to remain constantly unexpected, eternally fresh, new.
Cork-born street artist Conor Harrington was part of that 2011 quadrennial we’ve yet to see the second edition of. Alongside Rask, who spray-painted walls inside the National Gallery, Maser and DMC whose work appeared outdoors around Dublin, Harrington produced a painting on a gable end visible from Baggot Street. Street art brought the exhibition out of the gallery, yet the move felt calculated, like an empty-hearted attempt to give an ambitious contemporary art event some street-cred or, more specifically, edge.
In January, Harrington sold one of his paintings at a Bonhams auction in London for €107,706, double its estimate. Dance with the Devil, in spray paint and oil on linen, is a large painting in the instantly recognisable style of his graffiti. His themes are “faith and glory”, a heady mix for our times. He likes uniforms and brocade, shiny buttons and blurred faces, bravado, bravura and naked women. He produces images of bare knuckle boxing and fencing, featuring gentlemen in tailcoats and ruffled shirts. His work is full of movement and manliness, with an edge of decay. He is Francis Bacon- and Gerhard Richter-influenced, blending the drama of Caravaggio with a modern filmic sensibility. Ultimately, he’s a talented draughtsman but messy with it: an irresistible combination for a twenty first century audience fascinated by skill but hungering for something racier than a straightforward depiction.
Harrington is London-based but has been invited to paint all over the world. There’s nothing subtle or secretive about this work. Large scale murals require a cherry picker to reach and cover vast wall spaces. They don’t appear under cover of dark, but are painted in full view, with public engagement and observation as part of the deal. While never denying its graffiti origins and still occasionally embracing illegality, twenty first century street art has decisively hived itself off from those pure acts of vandalism, and firmly announced its intention to say something more than “I woz ere”.
Britain’s pseudonymous Banksy started it of course, but street art is having a moment right now, all over the world. Germany’s current Urban Art Biennale features work by 80 street artists from 23 countries. Harrington has shown in New York, sold work to celebrities (reportedly including Alicia Keys and Jared Leto) and is preparing for a solo museum show in Moscow in 2016. Four years on, it might still seem like Dublin Contemporary needed these guys much more than they needed it, but such art world endorsement is what turns spray-painting in back alleys into a serious, lucrative profession.
A version of this column was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland on 26 April 2015.