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International Print Biennale displays a passion for the specific

One of the North East’s most innovative festivals returns in June. David Whetstone sets the scene for the third International Print Biennale

Fence by Trevor Banthorpe
Fence by Trevor Banthorpe

As the birthplace of Thomas Bewick it should come as no surprise to learn that the North East plays host to the International Print Biennale.

Bewick, who was born in Mickley, Northumberland, in 1753 and died 75 years later, took woodblock printing to an exalted level.

You can visit his birthplace at Cherryburn where his legacy is evident. But others now champion the credentials of the North East in the world of fine art printing.

You only have to talk to Anna Wilkinson, director of Northern Print and instigator of the two-yearly celebration of the artform, to realise they are pretty sound.

Of the third International Print Biennale, she says: “This is not the northern version of something that happens in London. This is it in the UK in terms of major events concerning print-making. The people involved, the artists and sponsors, demonstrate that.

“Clifford Chance is a big law firm based in the City of London but they sponsor a post-graduate prize for printmakers in London and have been collecting prints for 25 years.

White Collar Black Man in Red Flower Jacket by Marcelle Hanselaar
White Collar Black Man in Red Flower Jacket by Marcelle Hanselaar
 

“I contacted them and said this was an international event and they went for it. It has been great to have them on board.”

The biennale also has the support of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) which offers one of the coveted prizes. The winner will have a print included in the V&A’s collection and feature on the museum’s website.

Anna says there was a print festival in Bradford in the 1960s which became the focal point for printmaking in the country, showcasing the work of artists such as Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield.

But it died in the early 1980s, leaving a gap in provision for a long time until Anna and Northern Print determined to fill it and won the support of Arts Council England and private trusts and sponsors including the aforementioned.

There has been a tendency in the past, says Anna, for printmaking to occupy “its own little world” but she reckons more artists have been making prints in recent years and it has become “more inclusive”.

Maybe a sign of that was at the recent Late Shows when 1,500 people took the opportunity to visit the Northern Print studios on Stepney Bank, Byker , after normal closing.           

Mixed Feelings: Fork It by Annie Bissett
Mixed Feelings: Fork It by Annie Bissett
 

Northern Print has done a phenomenal job of promoting print in the North East and an indication that its influence has spread much further can be seen on these pages.

These are a few of the prints by some of 37 artists shortlisted from among 740 entries to the Print Awards, centrepiece of the biennale.

“It is wonderful to have received so many entries from artists across the globe,” says Anna.

“There is such incredible diversity and it’s great to see that contemporary printmaking is so vibrant with everything from traditional print processes and new technologies appearing in the final selection.

“Our selectors had a tricky task and I’m now really looking forward to the selected artworks arriving and meeting the artists.”

The shortlists were drawn up by a panel comprising Stephen Coppel, specialist in modern prints and drawings at the British Museum, artist and Royal Academician David Nash and Susan Tallman, editor-in-chief of Chicago-based Art in Print.

Perpetual Cruise Line by Susanna Castleden
Perpetual Cruise Line by Susanna Castleden
 

The prizes also include the Bryan Robertson Trust Award, worth £6,000, the Northern Print International and National Glass Centre residency prizes, the Clifford Chance Purchase Prize and the Northern Print Collaborative Prize.

Susan Tallman says: “In the 21st Century we live surrounded by print. Most of it is mass-produced and impersonal, with the result that the contemporary visual landscape is largely generic.

“But prints – the art we are, after all, most likely to own – can also offer an experience that is tactile, close and intimate. Perhaps because most of life is lived between these two poles, print has become the single most pervasive component of contemporary art.”

Of the shortlisted works, she says: “Each, in its own way, declares a passion for the specific, for the closely observed detail: a gesture, a face, a spot of earth. They suggest that even in a world suffused by the generic, experience is always singular if you stop still and look.”

The International Print Biennale takes place from June 27 to August 8 in venues across the region. For details check www.internationalprintbiennale.org.uk

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