Living With Lithography

Amanda Croft sheds some light on International Contemporary Lithography at Queen's

Stone • Plate • Grease • Water - International Contemporary Lithography is the brainchild of Northern Irish artist, curator and Professor of Fine Art, Paul Croft. Having shown in London and Wales, the exhibition arrives at the Naughton Gallery at Queen’s University without much fanfare. Lithography might not be as desirous or popular as it was throughout the 19th century, but that’s not to say that it has nothing to offer in 2007.

Intrigued as to the state of lithography in the 21st century, Croft began collating the work of British artists who work in the field for the benefit of his students at the Aberystwyth School of Art. But word spread, and soon Croft had an international collection on his hands, with artists from as far a field as Argentina, Canada, Australia and the US sending him examples of their work.

Croft’s resulting exhibition shows not only that lithography is alive and well, but that it’s been brought firmly up to date with artists like England's Josie McCoy combining lithographical techniques with 21st century software applications like Photoshop to produce images that are entirely new.

Lithography was invented in 1796 as a means of printing images or text onto paper. In a nutshell, lithography uses chemicals and water to produce negative and positive images on the target surface. Thereafter, when ink or paint is introduced, colour is retained in the positive areas whilst the negative areas remain untouched.

‘In its earliest guise, lithography was a form of stone printing,’ explains Amanda Croft, Head of History of Art at Queen’s University and the curator’s sister. ‘Artists would have worked on a very smooth stone using wax crayons and chemicals, allowing them to make multiple copies. Artists today use similar techniques, but there is also room to further experiment using Photoshop.’

Lithography was perhaps utilised to its fullest extent by the 19th century French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - painter, illustrator and printmaker. Lautrec famously used lithography to produce posters for Parisian cabaret club The Moulin Rogue. Vivid and exceedingly risqué, Lautrec’s lithographs – showing dancers kicking their frilly skirts into the air for all to see - have since been reproduced ad infinitum.     

The Naughton Gallery is well suited for Croft's exhibition, naturally drawing the viewer through its carpeted anteroom – where portrait pieces like Graham Fleck’s Of Man and Angel hang resplendent in the dim light - and through into the main space.

The lithographs are hung without much thought to chronology, origin or applied technique. Black and white stone lithographs by Irish artists hang next to colourful plate lithographs by Japanese artists. It makes for an eclectic mix, surprising the viewer at every turn. And the exhibition is not confined to the walls. In the centre of the hall two installations of tin cans decorated with lithographic images seem like a new take on a Warhol classic.

From Co Down artist John Breakey’s abstract images of the Mourne Mountains to Paula Rego’s disturbing black and white sketches; Nicollette Carter’s playful doodles to Michael Barne’s grotesque profiles, International Contemporary Lithography offers a wide range of styles and techniques that could appeal to a broad audience.

‘Paul was becoming concerned that lithography was beginning to fall of the artistic map,’ confides Amanda Croft. ‘Partly because of the rise of digitisation and other new printmaking techniques. He was both gratified and terrified by the response – he received something like 700 individual entries. But in the end he found it a hugely rewarding experience.

'The exhibition aims to show a range of different applications of a very old technique. We hope the exhibition might go some way in renewing an interest in lithography with both art students and the general public.’