One thousand and ninety-two. It’s a large number. Too large. It’s the number of artworks on display at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition – a vast, packed exploration of where we are now, and perhaps where we are going, in art. It’s an unwieldy beast, bursting at its boundaries, hard to grasp fully. The two hundredth and forty-ninth summer exhibition held at the RA – never missing a year since it began 1769 – brings to mind the adage of the curate’s egg: ‘good in places’.
International artists like Marina Abramovic are represented, as are standout British names such as Tracey Emin; yet it is probable most of the myriad of painters and sculptors will be unrecognisable to you. The famous, the up-and-coming, the bubbling under, the old hands, academicians and amateurs, all fight for your attention on the walls of Burlington House. Curated by Eileen Cooper, Keeper of the Royal Academy, directing a Hanging Committee including Yinka Shonibare and Farshid Moussavi, Cooper claims at the beginning of the show that it intends to celebrate diversity and global culture. The follow through, however, is disappointing: the plethora of work on display, from wildly disparate artists, prevents any coherent overall theme being established.
Many critics have taken Alastair Sooke’s line that ‘[this] is not a vintage year,’ with most reviews, untethered from a particular frame of viewing the exhibition, becoming webs of observations, noting fine works, disparaging others. It was ever thus, even going back to Joshua Reynolds’ and Benjamin West’s presidencies in the eighteenth centuries. By including the traditional room of architectural plans (fascinating, but belonging to another world), the whole format of the show resists a unified argument. It is a ritual to be undertaken, rather than compared to concurrent exhibitions. Perhaps that’s a secret strength, to have one flagship annual exhibition left in London which doesn’t have a thesis, but lets the audience guide themselves, picking out the pieces they enjoy the most, leafing through the two hundred and sixteen page List of Works to discover who they’re all by.
As I walked through the exhibition, I marked each artwork in the booklet which in someway emerged out of the surrounding morass to engage my curiosity. Reviewing the haphazard series of titles which I highlighted with an asterisk, it becomes apparent the most interesting works came from minor artists. Apart from Anselm Kiefer’s flower painting Und du bist maler geworden, works from prominent artists, from Gilbert and George to Frank Stella, seem rote, conforming to stylistic expectations. Instead, many of the most impressive pieces were not those which sought to explode formal boundaries, but rather explored existing genres with great facility. Jock McFadyen’s huge Calton Hill 3, depicting a vast, outsized moon rising over Edinburgh’s central hill, is beautiful for its embrace of landscape, while at the same time it uses encrusted paint to make the ridges and mountains of the moon rise up from the canvas’ surface. The moon sits above a navy blue background, glowing in white and grey, far outstripping and overpowering the surrounding paintings.
Other works, equally, have sly streaks of wit running through them: Glen Baxter’s amusing cartoon ‘But I distinctly requested a Rothko!’ barked Big Red is drawn to appear straight out of The Telegraph. With Hassan Hajjaj’s wonderful photograph, Henna Bikers, however, the surface humour serves to underline a deeper political point on female empowerment in the Middle East.
Yet it’s clear, even amongst the works which appeal to my own aesthetic sense, little commonality is shared amongst them. Is this adequate cause to side with Sooke and his compatriots to opine that the show ‘is the last word in déjà-vu’? Far from showcasing the rising stars, so the argument goes, its mixture of established artists, Sunday painters, and men and women spanning every conceivable decade, is a hodge-podge, indicative of nothing outside its own self-referentiality, the walls filled by works from minor academicians.
There’s weight to the attack that we should be cautious of burdening the Summer Exhibition with significance greater than it can bear. Yet no doubt the exhibition has its own unique, idiosyncratic pleasures, the occasional frisson of dissimilar works brought together in the same gallery space. The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition should be seen, if only to understand that once all public art exhibitions were like this – as much as it wants to be seen as forward-thinking, it’s also a vision of a past way of viewing art.