Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Friday 15 November 2019

What lies beneath: Fragile by Gordon Harris

Fragile by Gordon Harris

Oil and silver leaf on board © Gordon Harris Photo by Roy Hewson © NGI

Fragile by Gordon Harris
Fragile by Gordon Harris

Niall MacMonagle

Gordon Harris's early art attracted attention. He graffitied "wicked willies" on Mayfield Library, Cork, got caught by a guard on a Honda 50 - and as punishment had to paint the whole library magnolia.

Better things followed.

This compelling portrait, shortlisted for the Zurich Portrait Prize 2019, is now on show in the National Gallery.

His father Eddie, mother Rita and older brother Ger were important influences. Eddie, a welder in Cork dockyards, made posters for the dockyards and "from there onwards I used to draw on anything I got my hands on. I drew caricatures of my schoolmates"; his mother always encouraged him, and "Ger's encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s and 1990s music and movies inspired me".

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Harris, whose work hangs in collections in the UK, US, Japan and Monaco, is self-taught. He tried a portfolio course "but rules and regulations took the passion out of it and turned me off for a couple of years". He worked nights in Cork Plastics, "then met my beautiful wife in Rearden's in Cork - we opened clothing shops together but the 2009 recession hit".

He did his first painting when he was 30. "It was when my eldest daughter Elise had meningitis. The painting was for my own personal reference. I took it on my Blackberry at the side of her hospital bed on her third birthday, a hazy photo taken at night time".

Now based in Oughterard, Harris's day begins when he and his wife Niamh get the three kids Elise, Aobha and Alannah ready for school, "always with a bit of good music and strong coffee, to get the day going".

He has a studio/gallery in Galway [High Street Art Gallery at 22 High St], and though his work has included still lifes of jellies and flowers, today it's predominantly figurative: "These days I concentrate on my kids."

Harris has been painting Aobha, the girl in Fragile, 2019, since she was six years old. A photoshoot may take an hour or so but once you get her relaxed, her emotion always comes through.

This powerful painting took a month and his intention here was to create "a current, provocative and dramatic piece of art which depicts a young girl, fragile yet strong". Shaded innocent eyes beneath a bubble-wrapped war helmet stare at the viewer. Silver leaf gives her face a sandblasted look and he hopes "the viewer would sense the innocent emotion and strength within."

Gordon Harris also likes "paintings that unease you with emotion". Fragile, 2019 does just that.

Zurich Portrait Prize 2019 at the NGI until January 12 and then at Cork's Crawford Art Gallery, January 31 to April 13. Everyone welcome, including gardaí on Honda 50s.

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