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Art review: Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

21 June 2019

Nicholas Cranfield finds that the RA’s summer show has lost its edge

© david parry/royal academy of arts

An installation view from this year’s Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition

An installation view from this year’s Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition

BY WAY of preparation for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, I had earlier in the week adjudicated a local church’s annual art competition, and later attended the opening of the painter and stained-glass designer Mark Cazalet’s colourful meditation “Quiet Radiance”, at Serena Morton (343 Ladbroke Grove, London W10, until 12 July).

Next week (as I write) is the opening of the June Mostra at the British School at Rome, where I am looking forward to what promises to be a strong exhibition. The Australian Andrew Bonneau, the multi-media artist Phoebe Boswell, and the German Karin Ruggaber, whose tile-like shapes and sculptures mix geometry and suggest tactile work surfaces and façades, are among the seven artists show-cased.

For rather too long, the annual Summer Exhibition in Piccadilly had navigated the doldrums of plain ordinariness with an unerring enthusiasm to decorate suburban homes with holiday souvenirs. More recently, it seemed to turn a corner; the past three or four shows have become worth visiting as shows. As befitted last year’s anniversary, the 250th exhibition drew gasps of admiration.

Clear evidence shows that our financially hard-put academies and colleges, increasingly ignored by governments of both political stripes, still produce artists of discernment and real skill. But you need to look hard here before you find tomorrow’s Turner or Hockney.

I wanted to play the game of finding an artist whose work I would pay good money to see in a retrospective in ten years. I ended up finding it easier to guess which work Ivanka Trump would have wanted to take back with her.

Much as I still long for an annual exhibition solely displaying the past year’s works of the RAs, I can understand why the format has long changed to make this the world’s largest open-submission show for contemporary art. But this comes at a cost when there is an unbridgeable gulf between the “professional” and “amateur”. This year, for whatever reason, we seem to have gone back to the Sunday-afternoon pictures.

Proper tribute to the practice of Royal Academicians is given more and more space, but not always to real effect. This year, two pastels by Dame Paula Rego, selected by Tim Hyman, saved one room for me (VI): her Agony in the Garden and Deposition should awaken the interest of any intelligent dean to the possibility of her undertaking Stations of the Cross for a cathedral.

Wolfgang Tillmans RA, celebrating his interest in naked men, offers an inkjet print of Liam and TM scrambling up a sandbank (463) as a helicopter makes its way towards them. Are they illegal immigrants landing safely on a foreign shore, settlers in a primal state? Next to it, Ksenija Vucinic, who came to painting relatively late (aged 40-plus), catches two men kissing in a tide of acrylic as if it is a day-to-day occurrence.

Unpardonably, the Academician Spencer de Grey has crammed so many architectural models on to makeshift tables and hung drawings and projections so densely in the Large Weston Room that the ensuing crowding makes it feel little more than a bric-à-brac sale in a church hall.

Architecture is about space (it may also be about sustainability and design, which is the brief that de Grey sets himself), and it deserves to be seen. That said, whether you read Arnold Bennett or not, it is worth hunting out Monika Marinova’s Departure from Stone Construction: Stoke Town Hall (573), a happy joke in poplar, walnut, and brass.

In Room VIII, it is only the sudden blaze of a single coloured wall that draws attention, first to Joe Tilson’s latest postcard from Venice (San Trovaso here (1353); three more appear in the selection that Stephen Chambers has made for the Lecture Room) and then to a remarkably absorbing piece by Aleksander Mochalov.

In his oil painting (1339) Rachmaninoff: Piano Concert [sic] no 2, a Virgin and Child emerge in the midst of the orchestra. Set between the cellos and violins, a Byzantine figure cradles her son, who uncharacteristically holds a necklace. Sadly, it is the artist’s only work on show.

The red stickers had started going up on the multiples long before I got in to see the exhibition; deservedly popular is Henry Hagger’s intaglio gravure with chine-collé of the west façade of Wells Cathedral (1070); but I couldn’t quite understand why Jayson Lilley’s defaced £5 1971 bank note (1102) (the work is incorrectly cited as a bank note from the 1980s, which would surprise the designer, Harry Eccleston) or Suzanne Moxhay’s stairwell in a distressed house (232) should be such runaway successes.

Friends who know me will tell that I can just about cope with one Mozart opera a year, and that anything else earlier seriously endangers my health and equilibrium. At least with an opera, I know how long it will last; wall to wall, row after row, nearly 1600 works here risk inducing narcolepsy. Peppering it with work by the Academicians can leaven only so much of it at any one time.

The 251st Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 12 August. Phone 020 7300 8000 (ticket bookings 020 7300 8090). www.royalacademy.org.uk

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