Lithography Rocks

Helen Paisley's prints bring a 'kinetic sense of Gallic energy' to the Lagan Barge for August Craft Month

On a typically wet Belfast afternoon, there are few better places to take refuge from the rain than on board the Lagan Barge. Permanently moored next to the Waterfront Hall, the pitter-patter of rain on the deck above and the sloshing of the river against the hull make the former cargo boat a cosy hiding place from the elements.

Currently the experience is further heightened by the arrival of Helen Paisley’s pun-tastically titled Drawing On Legacy: Lithography Rocks exhibition.

Part of Craft NI’s August Craft Month initiative (a celebration of contemporary crafts and material arts in Northern Ireland), Paisley’s show strives to immortalise local brands through the stone-printing technique of lithography, as well as demystifying the artistic process involved in the oft-forgotten medium.

Located below deck on the ship’s hold, the exhibition is comprised of six reasonably large pieces, tastefully hung against a black curtain backdrop, each one a snapshot of local history.

Depicting advertisements from yesteryear, these works are rendered using a centuries old technique of stone printing. Not only are the pieces highly evocative of the early 20th century brands they are based on (preserved and contextualised in poster form), they are are also thoroughly unique in their presentation.

Identifying traditional printmaking created on an industrial scale in Belfast during the prolific ship-building era from 1890 to 1920, Paisley’s work has a charcoal-like quality that is extremely expressive and precise.

With subjects including the Grand Opera House and Gallaher’s Tobacco (this work in particular stands out due to its sumptuous red, white and black colour scheme), these works may be centered in Belfast, but they also bring to mind Toulouse-Lautrec’s work in the same medium.

Theatricality is a running theme, with posters advertising formal costume hire sitting alongside depictions of circus acts and other performers, bringing a kinetic sense of Gallic energy to the pieces.

I wish there were more than just six pieces on display. Fortunately there is also a collection of miniature cyanotypes on show – cyan pieces created using the photographic printing process most commonly associated with 20th century blueprints. Paisley has reclaimed the technique with a series of fine artworks, largely involving scenes from nature.

What these pieces may lack in the cultural context provided by the main exhibition, they more than make up for in aesthetics. Prints of these pieces can be picked up for an affordable £25, with signed and framed prints of the larger lithographical works going for £125 and originals for £350.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of this exhibition is the passion for the craft that shines through. There is a heavy emphasis on explaining how the processes of both lithography and cyanotyping work, with plenty of reading material in the gallery space providing information on the subjects.

Going one step further, however, Paisley actively encourages viewers to get involved in lithography themselves, with applications for courses at Belfast Print Workshop on standby. Such enthusiasm is infectious. Here's hoping that traditional art processes like those displayed on the Lagan Barge can move from the past further into the modern mainstream.

August Craft Month continues until August 31. View the full programme of events below.