Gill Hedleyback

Curator & Contemporary Art Consultant

British Print Biennale

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

Eighth British International Print Biennale

Review of exhibition at Cartwright Hall, Bradford for in . 


Figures (8th Biennale, 55 countries, 369 prints) should not be allowed to lessen the impact that this variety of images produces.

The selection system of this huge contemporary art exhibition is complicated but worth explaining.

The exhibition is a mixture of an open and an invited format: ten major invited British artists, a British open section, and printmakers from overseas invited to submit one print and nominate two others from their own country. This makes a very partial selection, a practical solution producing a conservative choice. It is clear that the chosen artists will choose the work of friends and followers, risking a lack of contrast. Such a format brings everything down to the personal taste of the few, the chosen doing the choosing and does not necessarily display the best of international printmaking. That, however, is not the point. If it was the point then, even if held only every two years, the exhibition could not have a developing, novel selection. Clearly, too, it is right that a show organised in Bradford should have a strong British bias and Britain is represented by both an invited and a genuinely open section.

It is a pity that the open section reveals a bias towards the 'New Spirit': with too many figurative and illustrative repeats. There are powerful exceptions including Harry Holland's sombre little nude, Tim Mara's witty pattern-making, Peter Pretsell's Narcissus and Christine Post's Blind Man with Radio.

It is obvious that the invited British section will contain great prints but it is not a reflection of the best of British printmaking today. The Hockney is lovely but not new; Richard Hamilton's Leopold Bloom 1983, however, is a treat.

Big names are not confined to the British section: Roy Lichtenstein and Sol LeWitt can be found (represented by strong prints) in another room, another continent. The show is roughly divided and grouped by continent so that on a visit we start with Britain, go across the foyer to North and South America (passing Scandinavia and New Zealand), up to the first floor for a view of Europe and downstairs to Australasia.

It is irresistable to make generalisations about countries: France is disappointing, Benelux very dull, Japan a delight, Czechoslovakia surprisingly good. In such a huge array humour is arresting and, from New Zealand, Deny s Watkins' Concert Party is the funniest of all.

The Japanese print has as sound a tradition as the English watercolour but has survived in a much healthier form. Today the artists employ screenprint rather than woodblock but retain the delicacy and a sympathy for landscape and pattern. Tetsuya Noda's Diary is both technically and visually stunning. It is curious that one of the best of the prints from the USA, certainly one of the most elegant, is by a Chinese - born artist Takeshi Takahara. Curious, too, that the Latvian representative submitted a triptych, Hiroshima, containing visual quotations from traditional Japanese prints.

It is amusing to note how many nods at nationalism occur: a Union Jack, Dutch tulips, Spanish bullfighters, an American diner. There is a surprising lack of politics for an international survey of a medium which often carries a message, but there is a Nightmare in Lebanon and assassination in the Philippines.

There is almost as diverse a range of techniques as images: screenprints and lithographs, etchings and mezzotints, lino and woodcuts, but a carborundum print, a xerox, cibochromes and many mixed media, too. It is a rich and varied exhibition which will repay several visit with some sections demanding greater time and attention: I would linger in Japan but not stay long in France.

With such a range of countries it is extraordinary that the prints arrive in Bradford at all, let alone so rarely damaged. It is unfortunate that the frames must be servicable rather than flattering and that the display has to be crowded but such a show has to be on a mammoth scale to justify the immense effort. Sadly the Biennale must now justify its very existence.

The Bradford Biennale is under threat although it has established itself as one of the five major print exhibitions in the world. The City of Bradford Metropolitan Council has been forced to cut funding and the eighth show may be the last. Why an international print exhibition? Why Bradford? There are few other show§ in this country of such international range. Transport and insurance costs prohibit the gathering of paintings or sculpture on such a scale and the print, a multiple work of art, is portable and robust. Works are usually for sale, prices fairly low and affordable by gallery visitors not just public collectors. Therefore, there is no need to tie the exhibition to the London art market. It also serves as a source of information for printmakers and students and the Nortn of England is an excellent catchment area. I hope this international gets local support and that its national significance as a contemporary art exhibition is recognised.

A touring version will be seen in Southampton and Aberdeen.