The Sheffield (Print) School

On Wednesday night I stepped from a moody January evening into the Millennium Gallery’s new Printing Sheffield exhibition with an expectant heart and a curious mind. People dear to me were showing work, along with folk I’d admired for ages and new talent too. How could you possibly represent the exploding Sheffield printmaking scene in a single exhibition? Whose work would hang next to whose, and would there be a Sheffield theme shared throughout? To say I had Sheffield on my mind as I clapped eyes on the tidy-sized crowd spilling out of the exhibition doors would be understating the case.

The fruits of labour of 30 contemporary printmakers began to hove into view. Spectators were by turns giddy and intent, hugely absorbed in what they had come to see. I could steal initial glimpses of prints, through heads, bodies and conversations. A riot of colour, form, text and place announced its presence as I manoeuvred my way through the clusters of guests round pretty much every piece of work. I started to get a tingly sensation: I was in no doubt that what I was witnessing here was very special indeed.

The fact is, Printing Sheffield more than does justice to contemporary printmaking and art in Sheffield right now. Landscape, street, pastoral, abstract, figurative: a panoply of styles and traditions combine to give the visitor a rich experience of the artistic prowess going on all around them in studios and attics in our city’s streets. The exhibition affords the city’s printmaking stars their rightful place, status and kudos: in a major regional museum.

I loved ALL of the work: that’s no exaggeration or sweet talking or small thing. Mentioning individual artists seems churlish, as each printmaker deserves your attention, time and understanding. But hell, it’s my blog, so I will pick my personal highlights:

Florence Blanchard’s urban abstracts, paens to science that manage to be both minimal and majestic

Paul Morrison’s frieze of golden flora, a luxe pastoral for modern times

Kid Acne’s ‘Oh My Days’ print, for the vernacular it celebrates and the specific place in time it conveys

Jonathan Wilkinson’s The Motorway and The Meadows plate, a fitting commemoration of one of South Yorkshire’s great lost landmarks (and yes, reader, I’m also married to him)

Kate Thornton’s bird-shaped map of Sheffield: a clever take on our greener-than-green city (and in spite of my inbuilt Northern Irish superstition, I’ve got a thing about birds)

James Green’s linocut donkey prints: a deft fusing of form and content, full of folk and soul

Jane Elliot’s playful contemporary pastorals of treehouses and alpine settings: ultra-delicate and oh so carefree

Peter York’s panorama woodcut of woodland for its sheer depth and texture, a love-letter to Sheffield trees

Looking at the body formed by this set of diverse printmakers, I was struck by the feeling that I was looking not just at a remarkable exhibition, but a movement. Call it the Sheffield School, or the Sheffield Print School: there’s no doubt that the community making art, prints and crafts in Sheffield is already achieving big things. Printing Sheffield emanates a huge confidence and artistic largesse. You can tell that these are artists working in their prime, they know their minds and their style, and that’s exciting and powerful to observe. I’d bet my bottom dollar (or pound single, for that matter)  that the talent Printing Sheffield shows off in one of the north’s great museums will do for printmaking doing that thing we’re not so great at in this city: putting it on the map.

Printing Sheffield is now at Millennium Gallery, Sheffield and runs till 15 June 2014. Open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm; Sunday 11am-4pm.

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