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Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery is marking its 60th year in 2024 by celebrating the art of printmaking and inviting collaborations and contributions from Midlands-based artists. The venue will also host a master portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi as part of National Treasures - a National Gallery initiative forming part of its 200th anniversary programme...

Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery has launched a programme of exhibitions which celebrate and commemorate its 60th year.

The spring & summer season includes a close look at a master painting, brand-new art literally hot off the press, and exhibitions ranging from personal introspectives to playful celebrations of the everyday.

Ikon is situated in an ex-schoolhouse in Oozells Square. Surrounded by cherry blossom in springtime, the gallery feels light and inviting. It’s a breath of fresh air for those working in the many corporate buildings nearby, or travelling into Birmingham city centre by way of the (in)famous Broad Street.

Start The Press! exhibits in the first-floor gallery until Sunday 21 April. Its centrepiece is an antique flatbed printing press - on loan from Wolverhampton School of Art - an impressive piece of mechanical sculpture in its own right. The press is being used by visiting local printmakers to create art in real time, which fills the walls of the gallery space.

In the anterooms adjacent to the press is a more static collection showcasing the art of printmaking and featuring individual works from Lubaina Himid, David Hockney, Yinka Shonibare and Catherine Yass. There’s also a series of evocative 1970s prints from Pamela Scott Wilkie, who first exhibited art at Ikon in 1966.

Differing from the hive of activity on the first floor, Exodus Crooks’ Epiphany (Temporaire) inhabits the second-floor gallery in contemplative stillness.

The first room feels like another world - a dark, solitary space with a faint atmosphere of incense. The exhibition takes a journey through the artist’s inward and outward reflections, ancestry and spirituality. 
Start The Press! and Epiphany (Temporaire) kick off Ikon’s 60th-year programme and will be followed by more and varied installations.

Ikon has been chosen by London’s National Gallery for their National Treasures programme, in which 12 iconic and well-loved paintings from the collection are exhibited by galleries around the UK. All 12 displays launch simultaneously on Friday 10 May - the 200th anniversary of the National Gallery opening - at which point 50% of the UK’s population will be within an hour’s drive of one of the paintings.

The Ikon’s visiting painting is an engaging self-portrait by the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Dated around 1616, the artist models herself as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. She is pictured with the remains of a spiked execution wheel; the grizzly inspiration behind the ‘Catherine Wheel’.

Ikon will present Gentileschi’s self-portrait within Mirror Martyr Mirror Moon, a solo exhibition by Dublin-based contemporary artist Jesse Jones which creates a ritualistic environment, preparing visitors for their viewing of Gentileschi’s painting.

“What I’m hoping is that it’s a staging, rather than an exhibition with a Gentileschi in it,” says Jesse.

Conducting research for the exhibition, Jesse discovered that the Christian story of Saint Catherine’s martyrdom is based on an earlier historical figure: the mathematician, philosopher & astronomer Hypatia of Alexandria, a pagan killed by Christians. “So what we see in Saint Catherine is a kind of ‘through the looking glass’ mirror image.”

Gentileschi’s choice to paint herself as a famous martyr reflects the difficulty and violence of her early life, in spite of which she went on to have a prolific artistic career.

Jesse expands: “At the heart of Mirror Martyr Mirror Moon is this sense of the recurring martyr image through histories of women’s experience: through Gentileschi herself and her experience of violence and resistance, through Saint Catherine, the saint who was very famously martyred and was really persecuted for her intellectual rigour, and then the actual origin story, which is Hypatia. There’s three female portraits in the one portrait.

“You don’t need to know all of this going in, but I hope that people will have an experience of an intimate relationship with the Gentileschi painting looking directly at you, as a viewer.”

Jesse’s ritualistic surroundings include water gathered from holy wells in Ireland as an ‘eye cure’, a curtain that circles as a dancing body in the space, and a 16mm film opening up the stories of the women who inspired the work. In the centre of this is Gentileschi’s captivating self-portrait - which is well worth a visit in its own right.

“Whenever we see it in the National Gallery, it’s full of people and the room is really bright, and there’s a Caravaggio on the other side... She really holds her own in that space, but this framing of her in a more intimate space - it’s about having a really intimate encounter with Gentileschi.”

In contrast with this reverent installation, Ikon’s second-floor gallery will be hosting a major solo exhibition by Dion Kitson: Rue Britannia. Using sculpture, painting, film and found objects, Dion remodels everyday objects to isolate and elevate ubiquitously ‘ordinary’ sights, such as a burst football or discarded plastic bottle.

The exhibition includes Council House Of Kitson - a new installation featuring a pebble-dashed façade and footage documenting the artist’s father.

Outside of the gallery spaces, Ikon boasts a newly renovated shop with a selection of art books, prints and more. Meanwhile, Yorks Café offers scenic, post-gallery refreshment in the form of coffee or brunch looking out over the square.

The gallery is a registered charity, historically supported by funding from Birmingham City Council. At a precarious time for arts venues in the city, Ikon intends to remain free and open to all, maintaining its place as an essential part of Birmingham’s cultural landscape.

Start The Press! and Epiphany (Temporaire) are exhibited at Ikon until Sunday 21 April. Ikon then exhibits National Treasures: Artemisia In Birmingham, Jesse Jones’ Mirror Martyr Mirror Moon, and Dion Kitson’s Rue Britannia from Friday 10 May until Sunday 8 September. For more information at ikon-gallery.org

By Jessica Clixby