Visual Arts: You have to draw the line somewhere

Gnarled roots, churches and angst, lots of it. The selectors for the Cleveland International Drawing Biennale hardly knew what to leave in. By Charles Hall
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The Independent Culture
"No, no, no, bloody hell, no. No." There are 1,750 drawings to see. White-gloved attendants emerge from the right-hand side of a white screen, holding a single work a little away from their bodies, walk in front of the three judges, and disappear on the left. They find it a demoralising experience. "It's hard not to take it personally," one of them says, "when someone says `no' to you 50 times in a row." And the judges do say no; they sit in a disapproving row, shaking their heads in unison, like pensioners at a bus stop.

Not that they have much choice: the Cleveland International Drawing Biennale can't physically find room for more than 180 drawings. But that isn't really the reason. The real reason is that most of the work is awful, painfully awful. Within half an hour it's obvious that there aren't going to be 180 in the final selection. It would be a mild surprise if there were as many as 18. By the end of an hour, the most likely contender for the top prize (and there is pounds 12,000 to distribute here) is the screen the attendants are walking round.

Each of the three judges has a very distinctive way of looking. Angela Weight, of the Imperial War Museum, sets aside her peppermint tea to handle the drawing as it passes, peering over her glasses at interesting passages. She has a marked sympathy for a thorny, expressionistic draughtsmanship, for a kind of narrative the others tend to dismiss as whimsy. Eric Bainbridge, the sculptor, peers at a semi-surreal, neo-romantic mess of indistinct, bouldery forms with an expression of intense concentration, almost of awe. "That's just how my left buttock feels," he announces, "after driving up this morning." James Hall (art critic for the Guardian at the time) is quick and impatient, given to identifying each piece's all-too-obvious influences. "No, no, Jackson Pollock, no," he says bitterly; "no, no, seen enough Giacommetti; no, no, no, bloody Sean Scully, no." He's often made up his mind before the assistant has emerged fully from behind the screen. "Don't even bring it round," he says. "Bin it, burn it, take it away." Within the first hour, he has fallen loudly in love with kitsch: "Aaaaah ... doggies! We ought to have some of those. Hockney's got them in the Royal Academy."

Hockney, of course, is one of the reasons I am here. His exhibition of drawings, or rather, his pronouncements on the subject, re-ignited the art world's interest in the idea of draughtmanship, its place in art and art training. Now I want to know what the groundswell of opinion is, what these artists from around the world (there are as many as 60 countries represented here) really think they're up to.

But if I'm looking for thought, it seems that I've come to the wrong place. Drawings might be many things: preparatory studies for sculptures, paintings or installations, or objects in their own right; abstract or figurative or even script, from ordinary hand-writing to mathematical symbols; intense studies of an object under scrutiny, or of the materials used in the drawing or of the tension between the two. But the majority of these artists give the impression of having simply cast about forlornly for Something Interesting to Draw. There are lots of exteriors of churches, but no suggestion that the artists thought it might be worth going inside. And there are paintings about sex, but little evidence of lust: just scores of "good life-drawings" of, well, not so much women, more a strange animal called a life-model. There are times when it feels we're in a festival of cliche. There are bushels and bushels of tree roots - each and every one of which is gnarled. Just for once, you long to see a straight, healthy set of roots whose function is biological, rather than second-hand angst. And angst, as everyone knows, is the only permissable aesthetic emotion; Joe Public, who will smile dutifully for photographers, glowers meaningfully for the serious portraitist.

Maybe that's why the best drawings here are of animals. People actually like to look at them, and unbend while they're doing it. There are flea- bitten cats, bonking sheep, and a number of wonderfully dishevelled crows. Drawings that one might normally dismiss as merely cute suddenly reveal themselves, in the midst of all this non-specific gloom, as the workings of a live and independent mind. Their apparent innocence throws into relief the solemn egocentricity of the majority of the submissions, whose most interesting and prominent feature is generally an over-elaborate signature.

Part of the problem is simply that, despite its international profile, the competition doesn't attract established artists: in fact, of all the entries, the judges finally admitted to recognising only four or five. Perhaps charging pounds 14 per submission is a mistake: it's not much money for a weekend painter with a steady job, but it's a week's food for a serious artist getting by on income support. That's a lot to pay for the privilege of being rejected. More than this, though, I suspect that a "drawing biennale" is simply the wrong place to look for good drawing now. Artists who regard drawing as significant in itself seem, on the whole, to have drawn inspiration from the anti-establishment, anti-intellectual neo-figuration of the 1980s, but the liberating physicality of that tradition has long-since decayed into a sterile posturing - the aesthetic equivalent of body-building. The best drawing I have seen in recent months has been just one of many forms of expression integral to (and inextricable from) an artist's whole practice and understanding of their art: the shaved and crafted lines in a Callum Innes painting, the rhythmically tapering incisions in a William Turnbull bronze, the zig-zagging electric cable in a Vito Acconci installation.

Then again, something strange and good happened during the second and third days of the judges' deliberations. After the early consensus, attitudes began to harden, and grudging approval intensified to partisan enthusiasm. People who had despaired of finding anything worthy of an award argued hard and unsuccessfully for works ranging from an oddly fetishistic image of a young girl to a strange portrait of Mrs Thatcher. Some of this enthusiasm reflected the judges' preconceptions, but some of it was a sign of eyes refreshed by looking hard at the kind of art that would normally fall outside the critical pale.

"Ah well," said the gallery director, as the judges took their leave. "This is when the abusive letters start."

n The exhibition is at the Cleveland and Middlesbrough Galleries, Middlesbrough (01642 225 408) to 4 May

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