Portfolio Exchange at Belfast Print Workshop

Gallery manager Alice Dixon talks about the 'alternative printmakers' putting Ireland on the map

It is the dog days of the student exhibition at the Belfast Print Workshop. The prints are still hung on the walls, but their replacements for the Portfolio Exchange exhibition are waiting in the wings.

Gallery manager Alice Dixon lays the new prints out carefully on a table. Each one is swaddled in layers of pristine tissue paper that crinkle as Dixon unwraps them. It is oddly festive – shades of a very minimal Christmas.

There are 18 artists taking part in Portfolio Exchange, all hailing from one of the six workshops featured in the project: Cork Printworkshop, Limerick Printworkshop, Lorg Printmakers Galway, Black Church Print Studio Dublin, Seacourt Print Workshop Bangor, of course, Belfast Print Workshop.

‘The whole idea,’ Dixon explains, ‘is that it aims to provide an alternative visualisation of Ireland from the unique perspective of the printmaker.' Some of the prints, therefore, directly reference the local geography of the artists.

Cathy Henderson’s ‘East Wall Docks’, for instance, plays with layers of varying transparency to build an image of a morning at the docks in Dublin. In the forefront the boats on the water – naked masks poking skywards like fingers – are solid black. In the background cranes hang against the nicotine sky like ghosts, faded and smudged with mist. It is a recognisable landscape.

Even more geographically precise is the piece by Belfast Print Workshop’s own Declan Byrne, whose work is all about empty, urban spaces. For Portfolio Exchange he has created an etching of the bridge at Corporation Street. The print is stark, all bare brick and concrete, but very detailed. It captures everything from the marks on the ground to the graffiti on the wall.

Other artists, however, created images that perhaps do not reference any particular landmark. Portraits, surreal landscapes and abstract blocks hint at the character of a place.

For example, Declan Holloway from Lorgue Printmakers submitted a photorealistic portrait of an old man. Set against a background that looks like rough canvas, the elderly face is all smooth pale folds and shadowed hollows.

Sylvia Taylor, meanwhile, despite the subversive ‘once upon a time’ aesthetic of her print ‘Bridges’, manages to capture a distinctly Cork atmosphere. At first glance ‘Bridges’ is a pretty but mundane print. Children stand over a hump-back bridge, water rushing past under their feet. Look closer and the oddities of the piece wriggle their way into your brain.

The children – rendered in a muted red that conjures images of cave paintings – are horned, hooded and carrying a lizard. Under their feet the leaping waves of the river sprout ears, snouts and eyes – a tide of furry creatures.

‘Rats?’ Dixon hazards, bending down to peer intently at one creature. ‘I think they are rats? Something to do with the Pied Piper, maybe, or the floods in Cork a few years ago. I like it, and it does remind me of Cork.’

Another print, ‘Fainne an Lae’ by Mary Geeleher, is a brilliant palette of jewel-toned blue and red blocks and bars. It is beautiful, but Dixon is eager to point out how effectively it demonstrates different techniques.

‘She has used bright, strong inks and a medium called Carborundum,' Dixon explains. 'It is a relief technique that uses textured plate, so it creates different effects on the print. If you put it beside a black and white one, you can see the completely different technique.’

Although 18 prints in Portfolio Exchange are up for sale – ‘Someone could even buy the whole set,’ Dixon jokes – that is not the purpose of this exhibition. It is a printmaker’s map, a way for artists to connect with other artists, to discover new techniques and to find new places to work.

'The thing about printmakers,' Dixon says, 'is that they are constantly challenged to try something new.' With Portfolio Exchange, these artists show the viewer that when it comes to new ideas and techniques, Ireland is most certainly in the vanguard.

Portfolio Exchange runs at the Belfast Print Workshop from February 2 – 29. For more information go to CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide.