Going Straight to the Source

NI's visual artists are spreading their wings, writes Kiran Acharya

NI art is hot property right now, especially in the USA.

This is neither self-congratulatory hyperbole nor the promotional bluff and bluster beloved by tourist boards. At the time of writing, a quick scoot around the ’net reveals that artists from the north of Ireland are spreading their wings, invading international territories quicker than America's military forces.

The Tides exhibition, currently on display at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, features nine NI artists selected from a group who represented the region at the 2005 Venice Biennale.

In Los Angeles, Track 16 hosts Troubles at Home by Michelle Rogers. The gallery has a history of handling overtly political artists - the perfect space for Rogers to include paintings motivated by NI’s conflicting histories.

An exhibition due to depart is Out of the Darkness, a 40-year retrospective exhibition from the Northern Ireland Press Photographer’s Association.

These images have been assembled at an incredibly pertinent time, the current selection perhaps the apex of the photojournalistic tradition in NI, born of the 1970s when hordes of shutterbugs started snapping the action in the streets.

On the ground in Belfast, however, is one particular hub of artistic creativity whose output reaches far beyond strict reactions to, documentation of, or escape from the Troubles in NI.

The Belfast Print Workshop and Gallery, found among the cobblestone streets of the city’s Cathedral Quarter, has been spoiling art lovers with exhibitions, and NI artists with opportunity.

Displays, ranging from digital prints to collaborative ventures with other Irish galleries, have generated a momentum that has allowed the Print Workshop to also take its wares abroad.

‘We’re having a print exhibition in collaboration with the Seacourt Print Workshop, Bangor,’ says BPWG director Paula Gallagher.

‘The two workshops of Northern Ireland have come together for an exhibition selected by David Furchgott of International Arts & Artists in Washington.’

Renewal: Printmakers from the New Northern Ireland features printmakers Struan Hamilton, Fiona Joyce and Veronica Wallis exhibiting alongside a range of other active artists who approach the form from more diverse backgrounds.

In the so-called digital age, there may not be the same impetus for people to physically visit exhibitions, particularly of prints - a form which negates the idea of one unique work of art, through its inherent reproducibility.

‘That’s exactly the myth that we are trying to dispel,’ says Gallagher. ‘An original print is an original piece of work. We don’t produce runs of 500 or 1,000 - major runs here are 20 or 35. That would be a high edition number.’

I once knew two friends, Walter and Theo, who had the most dreadful disagreements over the status of art in an age that supported mass reproducibility.

Theo despaired, militantly arguing that the mass production and proliferation of art reduced its status to that of factory-line productions, leaving art devoid of any aura and rendering it disposable.

Walt was also attuned to the dangers of commoditisation, but thought that being able to produce and reproduce art was a good thing, as it would expose more people to more art from more places, and help to raise awareness, engagement and develop critical attitudes.

‘We’d agree with Walter’s idea,’ laughs a wry Gallagher. ‘The artwork we produce is of a small number, so if you’re looking at art you’re taking in to consideration the name of the artist, their reputation, and their standing in the arts sector at the time.

‘You’re also asking, "Are they producing ten prints? Are they producing two?", so you’re factoring in many more things when assessing the price and worth of a piece.

‘A young, emerging artist wouldn’t command a high price for a print, but might do a larger run, to increase their accessibility and ability to display in more places at the same time. It very much depends on the artists themselves, and the techniques used.’

A challenge faced, then, by the artists is to strike a balance between expectation, technique and ubiquity.

The Belfast Print Workshop has assembled a valuable collection of equipment, from etching presses to vacuum printing tables, allowing artists to employ a range of techniques.

Fiona Joyce’s angular, colourful quadrilaterals bring to mind the BBC test card, or interior, pixellated perspectives on buildings or cityscapes.

The facsimiles, of course, need to be viewed on a scale much larger than the reductions that illustrate this article.

Veronica Wallis’ prints display technical and stylistic choice.

Mrs Hiroshige's Handbag is a screenprint, whereas Wedding Shoes is a monoprint,’ says BPWG manager Anna Burns. ‘This means she would have painted the inks on to the plate.

‘It’s an extremely painterly way of printmaking. Once you lift the print from the plate that’s it - you can’t do another.’

With one eye on history and the other on the future, Wallis’ contemporary screenprint contains a subtle homage to Hokusai’s 'Great Wave of Kanagawa', the 1832 image which remains one of the most famous achievements in printmaking.

It would take until 1977 before The Belfast Print Workshop established itself, and four years more before the Seacourt Print Workshop was set up in Co Down.

Since then, NI printmaking has rapidly insinuated itself into the Irish art world, its practitioners perhaps relishing their underdog status.

NI printmaking, much like Wallis’ print, has had to very quickly acknowledge its international historical origins.

In addition, the movement has had to simultaneously express itself in its contemporary moment, while maintaining the energy, enthusiasm and commitment that has allowed the NI printmakers to display internationally.

The Janus-faced sensibility is one that deliberately informs the direction of the Workshop, as Gallagher confirms.

‘The Workshop and Gallery have grown from one artist with one printing press, on the Stranmillis Road. From that, all this has flourished.

‘Printmaking suffers a bit like other media - like "why go to a stage play, when you could watch a film? Or why visit the Grand Canyon, when you could look at photographs?"

‘You can go to the source, experience the impact first hand and see a fresh print, with the ink dry or drying. It’s a visual thing that definitely needs to be experienced.’