If the last recession had not happened, chances are that figurative artist Gordon Harris would still be in the rag trade selling high-end fashion in Galway.
Despite never having formal training, the Cork native, who has been sketching since he was old enough to hold a pencil, has been shortlisted twice for the Hennessy Prize/Zurich Portrait Prize at the National Gallery. He was also shortlisted for one of Ireland’s most prestigious prizes in contemporary art, the Savills Prize at Vue Contemporary Art Fair in 2018 at the Royal Hibernian Academy.
Living in Oughterard, Co Galway, with his Cornamona-born wife Niamh, the pair ran a clothing business until “we had no other options” during the recession. Until then, aged 30, he had only worked with pencil, producing mostly caricature sketches, but the closure of the business forced his hand to oil painting, which he did in conjunction with opening the High Street Gallery in Galway.
Now, a decade later, his works are held in many collections throughout the world including the UK, Japan, Monaco and the United States, where Liberty, a large scale work from his Metallic Muse series, is part of a travelling memorial exhibition to mark the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York.
Known for his photorealism, at times when standing in front of some of Harris’s work, you have to remind yourself that it is a work in oil that you are looking at and not a photograph, such is the clarity and adroitness of his hand.
His three daughters – Elise (18), Aobha (16) and Alanna (11) – feature strongly in his body of works, especially his War Child series, which, he says, is about “protecting your kids and making them stronger”.
Fragile, a captivating work of his daughter Aobha in a bubble wrapped war helmet, stares back at the viewer in almost an unnerving manner and was shortlisted for the Zurich Portrait Prize in 2019. It took more than a month to paint: “the shadows take a slow build-up of glazing” (applying thin layers of oil paint with linseed oil), and oils are his preferred medium as he can layer a painting translucently with glazing.
His latest exhibition, Metallic Skulls, opens at Gormley’s Gallery on South Frederick Street, Dublin, on January 21st, showcasing his latest oil paintings, some of which are flecked with gold and silver leaf. It was inspired by his previous series, Metallic Muses, “of women in armoured metallic blankets who have been tortured but are unwilling to give in”.
Highly refined and meticulously detailed, the paintings “bring the viewer into the distorted forms of reality and take away gender, age, and ethnicity so the viewer is left looking at raw emotion – maybe it is a simplistic way of looking at the human spirit” according to Gormley’s catalogue.
Softly spoken with a profound sense of humility, the artist says he’d like to “do paintings that stop people in their tracks”. Having to remind yourself you’re looking at giant oil paintings and not photographs in his latest exhibition, he might have just achieved his goal. gormleys.ie