International Print Biennale 2014: Is printmaking on the up?

Polly Checkland Harding

It’s clear from the International Print Biennale that changes are afoot in the world of printmaking.

Printmaking, like the UK’s publishing industry, has had some hard knocks over the last decade. Yet still it comes back fighting; bruised, changed, its face in a rather different shape. The slogan-like phrase currently popping up in all sorts of fonts is “Print is not dead” – or not yet. It has, however, adapted to survive. Turning away from mass manufacturing, printmaking has become more artisan, a niche and specialist thing. “The nod towards the handmade and the artistic vision is coming way back into the mainstream,” says Artistic Director of Hot Bed Press, Sean Rorke. “Printmaking at the moment is undergoing a massive resurgence,” he argues, explaining that exhibitions and festivals such as the International Print Biennale have helped to raise its profile.

“Printmaking at the moment is undergoing a massive resurgence”

The International Print Biennale has its centre in Newcastle, but extends to events across the north east. “It’s a very good way into the whole diversity of printmaking, from different approaches to techniques – to its whole history,” says Rorke. The focus of the biannual festival is the IFB Awards, which, this year, have narrowed 740 submissions from 42 different countries down to a shortlist of just 37 printmakers. Their work will be on show in two Newcastle locations: Northern Print is hosting seven, including Ellen Heck with her Forty Fridas (prints of women and girls dressed as Frida Kahlo) and Annie Bissett, whose work explores financial cliché’s using her dead father’s handwriting. The Hatton Gallery will take on the other thirty, with the subjects explored spanning the tracks of ocean cruise liners to the war in Syria.

The programme of other events ranges from an exhibition of contemporary Japanese prints at the Queen’s Hall Arts Centre in Hexham to a mixed media show by the De La Torre Brothers – using hot blown glass, found objects and digital printing – at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland. All in all, it’s a varied festival, and one that Rorke argues represents “the present picture in printmaking”. It’s a lovely, meta phrase that seems custom-made for this distinctive, bespoke event.

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