Monday, June 20, 2005

More Black, Vicar?

Exhibition Review: Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

For two months of the summer, the Royal Academy is full, rammed to the rafters, with contemporary paintings: some by famous artists, many by Royal Academicians, hundreds of others sent in by amateur artists. The number on display is vast – there are 1333 works here - and in some rooms no wall space is left visible. This is the Summer Exhibition, arts equivalent of Wimbledon or Glyndbourne: very middle-class, very English and very popular.

What’s it like? Exhausting, mainly. After a while, the paintings of houses and hillsides and cats, and more cats, and coy nudes and impasto cityscapes and hazy Venetian canals meld into one vaguely hallucinatory experience that, coupled with the constant background hum of Posh People’s Voices, causes a strangely genteel form of sensory overload. By the half-way point - room 4, lot number 666 (which isn’t a picture of the devil but the Garden Pond, Mistley) - I was starting to suffer from burn-out. An afternoon in the Summer Exhibition feels like taking a tour of a thousand Islington front rooms via Cork Street whilst leafing through Modern Painters and a few copies of Country Life for good measure. It dawned on me, as I progressed, just how many artists there are in this country. I wonder if everyone is secretly off at the weekends, easel in hand, gauche in pocket, to the Lake District, or the Fens, or sketching their husband looking pensive in the front room.

Anyway, there are lots of paintings called things like: Storm Passing, Gulls Flying or Seated Model From Behind, and some excruciating puns such as The Man Who Drew Too Much. Various famous and redoubtable characters are included such as Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Gillian Ayres and the late Eduardo Paolozzi. There is a vaguely homo-erotic painting of a blue sailor painted by a Holly Johnson. Could it really be the Holly Johnson? Surely not. Anyway, it had sold one copy, hopefully not to Holly Johnson. Old RA veteran Anthony Green, who I remember from childhood trips to this exhibition, has his usual 117 pieces in and, I was greatly relieved to see, is still including saucy shots of his missus in them. If people aren’t out on the hillside capturing birds in flight they generally tend to be in the studio being vaguely salacious so, typically, David Mach contributes an enormous sculpture of a naked woman made entirely from Dominoes. And it’s called Dominatrix. No, really.

There is a smattering of more contemporary artists including Gavin Turk, Tracy Emin, and Mark Quinn. There are photos by Sam Taylor Wood and Andreas Gursky. Michael Craig Marin contributes a tricksy computer animation. And, I was just wondering whether Julian Opie would pop up, when lo and behold, he did. There is also a special room devoted to Ed Ruscha, who’s conceptually clarity and focus came as a startling shock in the context.

Finally, and with some sense of relief I found the architecture room. Home turf I thought. Mind you, even the curators seem to have given up by this point, professing ignorance of the contents of the room and of architecture in general. Traditionally, this room gives architecture something of a bad name with practices chucking in a couple of curling competition boards they had hanging around the office. There are also lots of antiseptic white models of urban plazas or perspex office blocks and the odd little sketch of a house in the country. At least you are safe from pictures of cats in here.

Worst thing in the room has to be Michael Manser’s proposals for Heathrow Terminal 5 which looks as horrible as you might imagine Heathrow Terminal 5 could look. There are some nice drawings by the late Ralf Erskine which speak very much of their own period. Other highlights include a huge model of Will Alsop’s ‘Chips’ building, which has plastic fish in it, and some very nice drawings by CJ Lim of a landmark proposal for the 2012 Paris Olympics.

Overall, the Summer Exhibition leaves you reeling with the sheer monstrous amount of it all, unable to make much sense of individual works. Like most classic English days out it seems to exist partly as an excuse to drink tea and eat a lot of cake immediately afterwards. I certainly needed to sit down. Possibly, at my own easel. Now, if I can just catch the quality of that passing Cumulo Nimbus…more black, MORE BLACK!!…..

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