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A surprise or shock in every room

24 June 2016

Nicholas Cranfield views the Summer Exhibition at the RA

© the artist

Selected royals: Beard Aware, 2016, by Gilbert & George, in the Summer Exhibition

Selected royals: Beard Aware, 2016, by Gilbert & George, in the Summer Exhibition

AS A full-time parish priest, I often wonder how employed members of my congregation spend their working day. Apart from a brief period when, as a newly ordained assistant curate, I offered to shadow parishioners in the workplace, I have few insights into what constitutes work beyond my own experiences of international banking and, more recently, Academia.

The occasional glimpse of another profession at work does come when I use my press card and spend time with fellow journalists, as hard-working a cadre as any, I might add. Pity, then, your poor correspondent faced with a choice of four London press views on a single day. I was fortunate enough to get to two of them, and reckon three out of four would take diligence even without my day job.

Mary Heilmann, with lots of summer colours for ceramics and chairs at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, will have to wait another day. I shall certainly enjoy the Proms more this summer by spending time on my way across the park in the pavilion that Bjarke Ingels has designed for the Serpentine Gallery. In part inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, the 14-metre-high wall of 1802 fibreglass boxes folds down on itself to afford a temporary chapel-like structure.

Despite the later thundery rains, I started in Piccadilly with the 248th Summer Exhibition, amid camera crews and lighting towers. This remains the largest open-submission art exhibition in the world, although I do begin to wonder whether the likes of Gilbert and George paid their fee and sent in their submission like everyone else. My former Cambridge colleague Giles Davies failed to get his entry past the starting line, and I somewhat doubt he will be visiting in a hurry.

The good news is that the steady improvement in the hang over the past 15 years continues apace, and I found fewer opportunities to damn exhibits with faint praise. Seriously good art replaces the wallpaper of Sunday-afternoon painters, when rank upon rank of amateurs brought in their friends and animals to admire their work. True, trains and charabanc companies will still bring in an audience from the shires once they have done with placarding the countryside with red Vote Leave posters. But what they find may surprise them — including the prices.

In Gallery X, at the end of the exhibition, amid the photographs and prints (inkjet, c-type, pigment, and digital), stands out a single tapestry. Woven in wool and silk, Joe Tilson’s work is entitled Look, which might be a watchword for the whole show, which has been arranged to offer a surprise or shock in each room.

Some interventions are gratuitous: larger versions of the polymer models by Michael Stokes (Sucky Doll and I’m alright Jack) might (just) sell in some parts of Soho, while the sequence of the Kipper Kids, both of them born in the 1940s, cavorting in jock straps, only underscores how rapidly lamb becomes mutton.

If Tilson’s tapestry did not already dominate the wall from its position, its price might single it out; £80,000 (and that in an edition of three). So has the RA changed its perception about potential visitors?

Joe Tilson, who elsewhere sends his distinctive “Postcards from Italy”, oil paintings of buildings in Venice (this year, San Zan Degola and San Trovaso), framed as if painted on an oversized Air Mail envelope (remember those?), and his hand-coloured screen prints of the series “The Stones of Venice” (Anzolo Rafael and Santa Maria dei Miracoli), is not the most expensive Academician on show.

That dubious distinction for a single work lies with Allen Jones, whose painted fibreglass, stainless-steel, and paint pot (Action Painting) is marked at £210,000. I am afraid I walked across the central octagonal hall without so much as noticing it. The Serbian artist Marina Abramovic (an honorary RA and “the grandmother of performance art”) stands to net a ludicrous £2.178 million if she sells all 11 copies of her print Carrying the Skeleton (1) in Gallery II.

Since the artist pays the Academy a commission of 30 per cent of the net price plus VAT, you can see just how much money the RA raises each year for its teaching programmes, and for general exhibitions.

But who in their right mind is going to buy William Alexander’s oversized tractor wheel made out of cardboard boxes for 15 grand? At that rate, Reinventing the Wheel might just become “Laughing to the Bank”. Happily, in the Lecture Room it is overshadowed by Yinka Shonibare’s Ballooon Man, in which a fibreglass mannequin is dressed in Dutch fabric like a joyfully tumbling commedia dell’arte figure.

Above the carefully spaced wall of paintings in Gallery I is suspended a flying carpet that appears to undulate as each of the myriad faces on LCD panels changes. The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci was commissioned in 2011 and first shown at the 56th Venice Biennale; quite what it is doing here is anybody’s guess.

Each of the 144 electric-blue panels displays 96 images at a time, all of them photographs of the faces of thousands of people who crossed paths with the philanthropist Sakip Sabanci. It gives a slightly sinister feel to the space, partly by reducing headroom and also by looking as if these are faces trapped in a Freshmen Year Book from some American high school.

Designed by Kutlug Ataman, it is said to reflect the businessman’s thoughts on humanity, life, and art. It is not for sale; so I can only surmise that Sabanci Holding, which is reckoned the largest financial and industrial holding company in Recep Erdogan’s Turkey (ranked by profit), has underwritten this as cheap advertising. It might also serve to divert attention from the state of that country at the present.

No doubt, next year we will have an all-American retrospective of Andy Warhol, sponsored by Heinz.

Beard Aware by Gilbert and George has obtained the sort of attention the Brick Lane artists want. It revisits many of their existing tropes and references to beards and barbed wire. Two red figures, bent double like contortionists, stand upside down between panels that inexplicably include metallic profile heads of the present sovereign, her husband, her son, her father, uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandmother.

Prince Charles, as a Cambridge undergraduate, grew a beard to play Macbeth, and his father sported one in his naval days. George V was rarely without one, making him a dead spit for most of his male Romanov cousins, and his own father had imposing facial hair, but there is no recorded image of Queen Victoria as a bearded lady, and I doubt the Queen today has time for such frivolities.

That aside, the installed panels make a happy welcome to the second gallery, and the duo have been deliberately chosen by Richard Wilson, the architect who has co-ordinated the show this year, as two of about 20 artists who work collaboratively, and are therefore ineligible for election to membership of the Royal Academy itself.

Pierre et Gilles are also featured with a striking depiction of Zahia Dehar as Marie Antoinette standing in the grounds of Versailles in front of the Queen’s Hamlet. In the same octagonal room, Tim Noble and Sue Webster show Forever (Yellow).

Previously, I might have worried about the state of the Academy as it heads to a significant anniversary show in two years’ time. With recent work by more than 120 Royal Academicians on display, including the architects Eric Parry, Richard Rogers, Thomas Heatherwick, and other unrealised project designs by Trevor Dannatt, Spencer de Grey, and Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, I worry less.

And if anyone wishes to buy their way to my heart, please buy me the oil painting In Memoriam Yogi Berra by Tom Phillips: “When you come to a fork in the road take it”.

The 248th Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London WC1, until 21 August. Phone 020 7300 8000.

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