In times of crisis, people crave reassurance – and, in the aftermath of the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London, that is what’s on offer at this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
True, its traditionally festive atmosphere strikes a peculiar note at a time when the surrounding city is still coming to terms with the butchery on London Bridge. The RA’s courtyard, for instance, is brightened by a flamboyant, colourful sculpture, by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. Twenty feet high, it resembles a gigantic piece of colourful fabric, flapping like a flag in the wind.
When I visited, though, it was hard not to reflect upon the contrast it made with the Union Jack flying at half-mast above Burlington House. This week, of all weeks, is hardly the moment for a midsummer party.
But the principal selling point of the Summer Exhibition – which has been held every year, without interruption, since 1769 – is its robust reliability. A bit like Her Majesty the Queen, it is evergreen, dependable, and much-loved. And in this respect, of course, the 249th Summer Exhibition does not disappoint.
Walking through the galleries, inevitably we slip into a game of spot-the-artist, since so many readily recognisable artworks, by well-known Royal Academicians, jostle for attention upon the walls. Some of these RAs are still relatively young and, if not fashionable, then at least reasonably relevant. Others – and this is one of the idiosyncratic glories of the Summer Exhibition – are remarkably hoary and out of touch.
Here are a few slimy fingerprints by Richard Long. There is a sleek, chic gadget, visualised by Michael Craig-Martin. Honorary RA Anselm Kiefer submits a characteristically bombastic landscape, churning with Sturm und Drang, while his compatriot Georg Baselitz offers an ink drawing of a figure seen, just as characteristically, upside down.
Meanwhile, three paintings by Ken Howard, piled on top of each other, occupy a prominent position amid the grandeur of Gallery III. Two are dingy Venetian scenes, one with a supposedly “surprising” snowy effect, while the third is a kitsch portrait of the English cricketer Joe Root.
Stylistically, these pictures would have looked out of date in 1932, the year of Howard’s birth. What a contrast they provide with the exuberant faux-naif style of his contemporary Rose Wylie (b 1934), whose enormous triptych, Julieta (Film Notes), dominates the gallery’s end wall.
Yet I, for one, am glad that the RA can still find room for work which most birds-of-a-feather curators would reject as reprehensible. In a funny way, showing Howard’s curmudgeonly paintings feels like a fundamental expression of free speech. Like I said, the Summer Exhibition offers reassurance.
The bigger point, I suppose, is that the Summer Exhibition is the last word in déjà-vu. Take Wylie: since her election as an Academician in 2015, it has become customary to hang her witty, boisterous paintings in eye-catching places. For my money, though, Julieta (Film Notes) is, by her own standards, surprisingly fussy and belaboured. I much preferred a smaller, brisker work by her, featuring a buxom, Gaston-like girl playing lawn tennis, in a nearby gallery.
Or consider Cornelia Parker, this year’s official election artist, who has several works in the show, including an ethereal, affecting sculpture consisting of two silver-plated jugs, suspended on metal wire so that they float above a plinth. One of them has been flattened by a 250-ton press.
The title, Alter Ego (Object with Unconscious), suggests that they offer a metaphor for the whirring workings of the mind. I saw them as a pithy, poetic expression of the interplay between life and death.
But, hang on, isn’t something about them eerily familiar? Ah yes, that’s right: reviewing the Summer Exhibition back in 2011, I picked out Parker’s Endless Sugar – 30 antique silver-plated sugar bowls, also flattened by a 250-ton press, and suspended several inches above the floor in a line, like a procession of tiny flying saucers – as my favourite work.
So, same old, same old: reviewing the Summer Exhibition is the art critic’s Groundhog Day. There’s rarely anything new to say. One approach, though, is to consider whether the exhibition’s coordinator – this year, the RA’s Keeper, the painter Eileen Cooper – has done things differently.
Frankly, though, I couldn’t see much evidence of her “vision”. The walls of the show’s opener, the Wohl Central Hall, are painted a muddy sulphurous yellow, and hung with the usual motley abandon that will leave those who prize an element of coherence and decorum in a gallery tearing out their hair.
Of course, there are strong individual works, including a powerful woodcut by Honorary RA Jim Dine, and Vanessa Jackson’s Wyndham Lewis-like abstract oil painting Splice. Romuald Hazoumè’s sculpture Petrol Cargo consists of bulbous glass bottles extending in two wing-like rows on either side of a dilapidated motorised rickshaw, like a rust-bucket Victory of Samothrace.
But there are also several stinkers: Frank Stella’s crazily tasteless wall sculpture Corner Pocket, Marina Abramovic’s phone-it-in photograph of herself, holding a couple of shovels, Paola Pivi’s silly, Duchamp-lite bicycle wheel festooned with peacock feathers, and several risibly clichéd photographs of “sublime” American landscapes and a cloud-scudded sky.
Elsewhere, Cooper has invited other artists to oversee individual rooms. In his raucous, cluttered gallery, Shonibare showcases work by African artists: a beautiful, shimmering wall hanging-cum-“painting”, made of aluminium bottle tops, by the Ghanaian master El Anatsui; Goncalo Mabunda’s dark and powerful “thrones”, fashioned from decommissioned weapons; and Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga’s stunning, sensuous curtain of chunky oxidised cans and stainless-steel wire, which provides a rich cascade of painterly turquoise and gold. I have no idea why Una Stubbs’s wishy-washy portrait of Bill Nighy is in the same gallery.
By contrast, the Lecture Room, curated by Fiona Rae, is a much more orderly affair, with handsome (if slightly dull) dark-grey walls and a refined overall effect – despite the ominous, visceral presence of Unborn, a great bulging hunk of what appears to be flayed flesh, but is, in fact, silicone and fibreglass, by Anish Kapoor. Looming in a corner, it is positioned provocatively beneath a cast of Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo.
Here, we find the big-hitters, including, as well as Kapoor and Kiefer, Phyllida Barlow (whose wall-mounted sculpture, Untitled: Hammer 2015, is typically authoritative), Julian Schnabel (whose plate-encrusted approximation of Post-Impressionism is typically awful), and Mark Wallinger.
The American George Condo presents Pacific Coast Highway, a beautiful semi-abstract painting full of wonderfully rich passages of dense purple and blue – a contender, surely, for this year’s prizes.
I’m not a massive fan of Rae, but even her work, in this context, looks delightful and alluring: two buoyant abstract oil paintings, full of sprightly, subtle flourishes, as if the work of Joan Mitchell and Takashi Murakami had somehow been fused (as improbable as that may sound).
The customary display of architectural drawings (yawn) is half-hidden far away from the entrance in the Large Weston Room, while a cluster of works submitted by members of the public (mostly small, drearily unadventurous nudes, landscapes and still lifes) are buried almost out of sight in Gallery I, which resembles a batty old aunt’s attic.
Admittedly, this has the benefit of maximising the overall aesthetic impact of the exhibition. But it does somewhat undermine the much-trumpeted claim that this annual show is “the world’s largest open submission exhibition”, with 1,100 works on display. That may be true, but the presiding impression is of, rather, a cabal of professional artists, with established careers, indulging in much behind-the-scenes bickering and mutual back-scratching, as they jockey for position.
This, then, is not a vintage year for the Summer Exhibition: an underwhelming edition, it feels too formulaic, and insufficiently pepped up with big, bold new ideas. I left feeling that I had encountered a place-holder, before the Royal Academy pulls out all the stops for the 250th anniversary next year.
From Tues [June 13] to Aug 20; information: royalacademy.org.uk