After decades of sectarian violence, Northern Ireland's capital city, Belfast, is slowly regaining its footing as a cultural hub. In the narrow, centuries-old lanes and squares of the Cathedral Quarter in the city's center, art galleries, design studios, film venues and pubs are starting to revitalize a neighborhood that had tumbled into a century-long decline.
Among them, the Belfast PrintWorkshop stands as an anchor of professional calm. For the past 35 years, BPW artists have shared equipment and produced new work in a collaborative environment similar to that of Minneapolis' Highpoint Center for Printmaking, where a survey of the Irish collective's work is on view through Oct. 24.
Given Belfast's violent history, the survival of BPW seems even more remarkable. More than 1,500 people were killed in the city during the 30 years of bloody Protestant-Catholic skirmishes known as "The Troubles." That's a significant number in a burg whose population of 270,000 is just a shade smaller than St. Paul's. Although tensions still simmer, the fighting officially ended in 1998.
Surprisingly, Northern Ireland's violent past is not overtly referred to in the 34 etchings, silkscreens, lithographs and other prints at Highpoint. Many are recent pieces, but some date from earlier in BPW's history. Even then, allusions to the country's turmoil are mostly indirect.
One of the most subtle and compelling etchings may have political overtones, but it is cast as a meditation on the larger theme of life's fragility. "The Imminence of Death," by Diarmuid DeLargy, features a classical cast of characters under a turbulent sky -- a virile young man with outstretched arms confronts a band of stampeding horses and bulls, a pale maiden stands to one side, another youth lies crushed beneath flailing hooves. In the modernist manner, the etching communicates its energy, despair and beauty through brushy spatters and rough cross-hatchings that make it more sketchy and abstract than its narrative implies. While a Belfast audience might well think of incidents in the daily news, art types might recall such classic ruminations on death as Poussin's 17th-century scene of shepherds puzzling over the meaning of a tomb in Arcadia.
Other images also flit between past and present. Two fused figures, posed back-to-back in Helen Paisley's etching "The Conspirators," appear engulfed by eternal shadows and sullen silence. Hugh McDonald's portrait "Darker" brings the brooding intensity of a Rembrandt etching to the strong hands and handsome features of its protagonist. In his modernist crucifixion, James Millar reanimates ancient imagery with twisted bodies and passages of contemporary darkness.
Prints herald Belfast renewal
Claire Morgan alludes to the city's hopes for regeneration in her etching "A new moon for Goliath (Belfast)," which employs a light-bulb shape as a symbol of renewal hovering near a gigantic crane emblazoned with the H and W logo of Belfast's Harland and Wolff company, a firm now in eclipse that was once among the world's largest shipyards and the birthplace in 1911 of the Titanic.
The lithographic plate for Colin Davis' dramatic "Celtic Crow" also radiates a fierce, primal patriotism as the bird splashes down -- or rises up -- with outspread wings. Given the print's title, it is easy to imagine the bird using its outstretched talons to rip into the carcass of a "Celtic tiger," and then devouring that bankrupt -- and geographically misplaced -- metaphor for the economy of Ireland, Northern Ireland's larger neighbor to the south.
Simon McWilliams based two lively screen prints on Belfast construction projects. In "Red Apartments" and "Spine," he layers blocks of primary colors into abstract patterns that suggest modernist buildings wrapped in plastic sheeting. In "Loughview Bungalows," John Carson turns more traditional housing into 15 postcard-sized images of cottage façades garnished with flowered curtains, tidy hedges and neat stone walls.
Some artists focus primarily on matters of personal interest, ranging from Michael Hart's abstract stripes to Gill Nawl's playful but comically grotesque lithograph of a "Yellow Mermaid."
Others take account of those quiet moments that punctuate peaceful days. Richard Croft, for example, turns his eye to Ireland's rural landscape in a pair of sensitive, pastel-toned linocuts of snowcapped mountains rising behind a curving beach at Dundrum. William White's pretty etching of a single bloom in a clear glass is a hymn to simple beauty. And in his pale screen print "School House, Ballydroin," T. Carr observes a couple of girls and a dog in a neatly manicured village, the utter normality of their lives serving as a benediction in troubled times.