Friday 6 December 2019

Art lovers

They've suffered for their craft, selling bags and washing dishes by day, painting by night, but Stephen Milton finds Corkonian couple Chloe Early and Conor Harrington are finally making a name for themselves in the art world

Conor Harrington and Chloe Early
Conor Harrington and Chloe Early
Conor Harrington
Something Shiny Slips Away by Chloe Early
Dance with the Devil by Conor Harrington
The Ascent by Chloe Early

Stephen Milton

Beauty is a dirty word in the art world. I learn this perplexing notion in the presence of beauty. "I did a design course but was always on the border between a fine artist and a designer," explains Cork artist Chloe Early, while recalling her time studying at Dublin's National College of Art and Design.

"I was interested in the aesthetic, liking things to be beautiful." She scrunches her brow, looking briefly at the colour-splashed ground.

"It's a dirty word in art if you say something is beautiful, which is kind of funny if you don't know anything about art."

Ambling around her brightly-lit studio in east London, set back some 50 yards from the flurry of Brick Lane, I'm faced with images, breathtakingly deft oil-creations of a woman in suspension, encountering weightlessness, defying gravity.

The palette is soft and nuanced, yet powerful.

Partly inspired by Gian Lorenzo Bernini's sculpture, 'The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa', they represent elevated figures, risen from the terrestrial to the celestial.

"You don't know if she's going up or down. It's the glory of the rise and the danger of the fall," Chloe explains, piercing blues eyes lending further resonance.

Beyond a thin white partition in the lofty, arched studio, her husband, fellow Corkonian Conor Harrington, cultivates his own take on the dirty word.

Surrounded by soaring creations for his first New York exhibition, 'Punch and Judy Politics', all measuring 8'5" and 6'2", they depict stoic masculinity within a story tale saga, told with loose brushwork, dripping paint and graffiti flourishes, a nod to his background as a street artist.

A softly spoken painter, who attended Limerick's School of Art and Design, he creates elaborate photo shoots as the traced foundations of his work, allowing for the most intimate of detail.

"They're quite maximalist," he tells me. "I'm interested in power, politics and masculinity and I like to keep throwing things in the painting, to make them look more ostentatious."

Chloe operates the same technique, but to an opposite effect. For 'Suspended', her latest exhibition, the model was working with a trampoline. "When the figure is moving so much, it makes it far easier to photograph first.

"Directing the photo shoots has been the big evolve for both our work. Mine has probably become simpler.

"Yours," she continues, turning to Conor, "more complex."

She grew up in Douglas, he in Bishopstown, but they never crossed paths. She was refining her fledgling talent at the Ashton School. Conor had taken to the streets, his desire for graffiti inspired by an article in 'National Geographic'.

At 16, there came a brush with the law. "I was caught and spent a night in the local police station," recalls Conor. "But the funny thing was, they thought we were just drunk kids messing around and didn't realise we'd done this before, and would do it again the next night."

They met 11 years ago, shortly after graduation. Chloe was working at the Tigh Fili cultural centre in Cork. She helped organise the exhibitions and had a hand in choosing the artists. It was a convenient arrangement for studio space. Like every creative in the land, Conor had submitted his work for consideration.

"Everyone sends their photos in, pleading, 'Give me an exhibition, give me an exhibition'," he recalls warmly. "And Chloe was going through the submitted photos and saw my work."

"I loved them," she adds. "He used very similar colours to my work, like pink and blue. I liked that aesthetic.

"He came in and we became friends first, and got together later. We had lots in common."

Conor's show was a success and he sold six paintings. It gave him some sorely needed confidence, after a less than encouraging start from his college, where, he thinks, his street artistry roots weren't valued.

Chloe was already assured from her sell-out graduation show at NCAD. The new couple decided to dip their toes in the international art world and moved to London.

Naturally, the first year was a lesson in survival. "I was washing dishes," Conor chuckles, periodically glancing for assurance in his words from his wife. She frequently does the same. "I've always had this belief that if you work a shit job, it's going to push you towards what you wanted to do."

"And I worked in a bag shop in Liverpool Street station," laughs Chloe, "for 12 hours each day. I had to close up when I went to the toilet.

"That was a low point in my life but Conor was always more of an optimist. His mantra was, 'Things change quickly', and I used to think, 'He's a bit of a dreamer'. But things can change, and they did."

The young couple, both casually attired in paint splattered hoodies and faded jeans when we meet, provided support for one another in those difficult times.

"It was only six months after we met so we were really, really in love," Conor says. "That helped us to just kind of settle down and work. A lot [of young people] at the same age – 23, 24 – just come over and party but we were painting by night, washing dishes by day. I don't think I drank for the first year."

The elitist London scene proved challenging to navigate but they had an ally in their court.

An Irish, UK-based art collector, James Fitzgerald, had spotted their work in Cork and helped arrange their first group exhibition in London.

The sales started to trickle through. Chloe's work was picked up by the Stolen Space Gallery in east London, which conveniently had connections with galleries in the States.

Conor, meanwhile, spotted a copy of 'Art Review' magazine. "They had a street artist called D*Face on the cover.

"Turns out he was involved in the opening of a street art gallery called the Outside Institute in London. I mailed him, sent him some pictures and landed a show very quickly. And sold a few pieces for a relatively nice amount of money."

Steve Lazarides, Banksy's manager at the time, became interested and took on the new Irish painter. "His work was taking off and, in a way, I was really lucky.

"I didn't realise that, at the time, as I was crying into the suds while washing dishes, people would soon start throwing so much money at the type of art that I do."

Now living in Dalston, the couple moved their studio away from their home, to their current professional location in east London.

A rare twofold success, they steer clear from revealing their incomings but maintain an exciting, comfortable existence.

Both have shown in New York and LA. Chloe, 33, has had three solo exhibitions so far, gaining some rather well known clientele. Alicia Keys and producer husband Swizz Beatz are fans of her work, with the singer so moved by one of her pieces, she penned a song in appreciation.

"Alicia loved my work and, in particular, one painting, 'Passage', that had zebras and planes going across it," the artist sheepishly recalls.

The song was aptly titled 'Zebras and Airplanes'. "She released it as a free download on Valentine's Day just a few weeks ago, randomly. That's five years later and that was the first time I'd heard the song.

"She was going to play it for me on the piano but we never made it to her house last time we were in New York. But we've kept in touch."

They both giggle at the mention of such a lofty connection, like they almost can't believe it themselves. It's warming to watch.

Married last year in Bantry after a decade together, the pair share an obvious bond.

But, as two successful artists, the perception is an electric clash of the creative spirits.

"I think it depends on what kind of person you are," says Chloe. "I'm very chilled," her husband chimes

"And without sounding cheesy, our art is what brought us together. From the moment I met Chloe and saw her work, which was kind of like mine but different, it was like, 'I love your work. I love you'."

She cutely grimaces, shy of such public proclamations of affection. "It makes sense that we would be sort of happy painting alongside each other," she offers.

"Conor's had a huge influence on what I do, and same as I on his stuff. We're both very much involved in each other's paintings. It's one step short of collaborating on a painting."

Could that happen down the line?

She laughs: "That's where we might start to annoy each other. Maybe that would be the end?"

Their daily existence is disappointingly normal. Unglamorous, one could say.

"Very work-a-day approach," Conor, 34, says. "We come to the studio Monday to Friday, sometimes Monday to Saturday.

"We're very structured; go to lunch at the same place every day. I'm really kind of boring. I love my routine."

There goes the notion of inspired bouts of creativity dominating an insane, sleepless fortnight of non-stop brush strokes. "No," Chloe snorts. "I need to sleep."

Conor adds: "The artist Chuck Close once said, 'Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us show up and get to work'. And we're very much like that."

With their lives wholly intertwined, locked in a state of balanced cohesion, one wonders will children shatter this ideal. They both offer a pragmatic glance towards the other.

"We're lucky that we have complete flexibility," Conor relays.

"A lot of my friends have to go back to their jobs, and work a set amount of hours," Chloe offers. "And that's difficult, especially if your partner is in the same situation. But we have that flexibility."

She looks across the studio and smiles at her husband. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

'Suspended' runs at The Outsiders London Gallery until May 3. For more information, see theoutsiders.net

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