Summer Exhibition 2019, Royal Academy of Arts, review: like an emporium offering deals on last season’s stock
Alastair Sooke, Critic at large
Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition Credit: David Parry/PA
After the party, the hangover. Last year, to celebrate the 250th Summer Exhibition, the Royal Academy pulled out all the stops by appointing their most popular and exuberant Academician, Grayson Perry, to make everything feel like a knees-up.
Happy to oblige, he gave the walls several licks of bright, gaudy paint, plonked a raucous, bulging woollen sculpture, decorated with tinkling ornaments and colourful felt, by the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, in the octagonal central hall (where it greeted visitors like a larger-than-life maître d’), and generally upped the levels of fun and pageantry. It was always going to be a tough act to follow.
Unsurprisingly, Jock McFadyen, the British painter, who accepted the poisoned chalice of succeeding Perry as co-ordinator, cannot prevent this year’s Summer Exhibition feeling like a comedown. The colours of the walls are more subdued, the usually rumbustious, jostling hang is, in places, surprisingly sparse, and in the courtyard outside Burlington House, British sculptor Thomas Houseago presents a group of powerful but brooding, downbeat figures – stooped and hobbling bogeymen, with skull-like grimaces. That’s how I feel the morning after a big night out, too.
Those in need of pain relief should head for Honorary Academician James Turrell’s soothing light installation, tucked away in the Small Weston Room: with its diamond-shaped “window” onto a void of softly glowing lights, it is the visual equivalent of an analgesic drug.
In a passably witty joke at the RA’s own expense, McFadyen turns the central hall into a “menagerie”, playing on the well-worn idea that the Summer Exhibition – the largest open-submission art show in the world (this year, there were more than 16,000 entries, of which less than a tenth ended up on display) – attracts enough amateur animal paintings to fill Noah’s Ark. Here are pictures of fish, a gorilla, and a rhinoceros, as well as lots of sculpted dogs.
Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition Credit: David Parry/ PA
Look up, and you will spot a model of the famous 17th-century Dutch painting of a pet goldfinch by Rembrandt’s pupil Fabritius, its golden chain extending all the way to the floor. Is it cowering from the life-size tiger slinking nearby, by the Scottish sculptor David Mach? Maybe not: this big cat’s shiny, red-and-silver pelt is made from flattened foil confectionary wrappers from M&S. Yum! Mach’s predator is really a sweet pussycat.
That Marks & Spencer branding tells you everything you need to know about the Summer Exhibition, which is now as solidly middle-class as Elephant’s Breath by Farrow & Ball. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, except it makes for a bland viewing experience, offering about as much excitement and surprise as the decoration on a Cath Kidston mug.
Take the grandly cavernous Gallery III, traditionally hung by the exhibition’s co-ordinator. Mixing up photography and painting, McFadyen includes a photo of vintage books arranged on shelves by the colours of their spines: the inspiration, it seems, for his decorative approach to the hang of the room overall, which employs pictures to build up, as he puts it, “patterns”. On one wall, for instance, small works form a sort of proscenium arch below which an enormous painted wasteland by Honorary Academician Anselm Kiefer takes centre stage.
These days, there is always a Kiefer among the throng. Some find the expectable nature of the Summer Exhibition reassuring, the secret of its enduring strength. This year, though, really does feel like an exercise in going through the motions.
Poor Mother by Jock McFadyen Credit: Jock McFadyen/Lucid Plane
There’s the customary smattering of pictures by hoary Academicians, who keep churning out the same stuff year after year: Matisse once said that an artist should never be a “prisoner” of a style, but several RAs seem positively to relish their incarceration.
Then there are the unknown artists plagiarising major talents. This year, poor Ed Ruscha and Sean Scully both get royally ripped off. Likewise, Ivon Hitchens, but at least he died in 1979.
As usual, we also sense behind-the-scenes bickering about the placement of individual works. Mysteriously, those Academicians responsible for hanging individual rooms always seem to find prominent spots for their own pieces, while Christopher Le Brun, the RA’s president, gets an enviable berth, too. Funny, that.
One wonders, meanwhile, what a handful of artists did to deserve being hung behind a wall next to a locked door in Gallery IX. Peer into this oubliette, and you will find a powerful Crucifixion carved out of porphyry by Stephen Cox, and a tiny and thoroughly glum nude self-portrait, against black, by Chantal Joffe. The latter is much more truthful, lively and incarnate than Marsyas, Ken Currie’s nearby oil painting of flayed flesh.
Night Self-portrait (detail) Credit: Chantal Joffe /Victoria Miro, London/Venice
Elsewhere, Cornelia Parker exhibits a ghostly, delicate sculpture, featuring antique silver-plated tableware suspended from metal wires. But, hang on, didn’t she offer something remarkably similar at the Summer Exhibition back in 2011? This year is less a case of “the same but different”, more, “same old, same old”. The impression is of visiting a large emporium offering deals on last season’s stock.
That’s fine if you’re shopping for something pretty and inoffensive to go in your sitting room – though I’d hesitate before splashing out £210,000 on Allen Jones’s Kind of Blue, a naked shop-window mannequin, slathered in red paint, wearing stockings and high heels, and striking a sexy pose while standing upon a stool, placed in front of a large canvas. Didn’t he get the MeToo memo?
At least Jones provokes a response. Amid the tundra of jollity and politeness, few artists dare to suggest the difficulties or complexities of our times. Banksy is an exception, offering a one-liner on Brexit in the form of a shuttered gate at customs telling “arrivals from the EU” to “Keep Out”. While it raises a titter, it has less bite than most newspaper cartoons.
Elsewhere, Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller presents a more inflammatory work: a blue banner embroidered with the words “We are all immigrant scum”. Below, sculptor Michael Dean, a nominee for the Turner Prize in 2016, shows a bleak, state-of-the-nation floor piece, consisting of lumps of concrete, like squashed sandbags, and yellow hazard tape printed with his despairing, non-asterisked, coinage, “F***SAKE”.
Anything like this, with a bit of grit and guts, inevitably cuts through: Rose Wylie’s massive, self-consciously strident oil painting of Snow White, a feminist left-hook from an octogenarian heavyweight, is another strong example, because it manages to feel both festive and caustic.
Having taken place every year without interruption since 1769, the Summer Exhibition is hardly going to run out of steam now. But I hope next year’s organisers muster a bit more energy and inspiration.
From June 10 until Aug 12.