The Summer Exhibition – Art for art’s sake?

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition – TSIATSIA by El Anatsui

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is usually one of the highlights of the season in London with its wall-to-wall paintings and room upon room of contemporary art.

Now in its 245th year, I had high expectations for this year’s show having enjoyed the eclecticism of previous RA summer exhibitions.

The art on display always varies in quality but there’s usually at least a dozen or more pieces that blow your socks off.

With my catalogue in hand I arrived with a sunny disposition to peruse the 1,200 works in the current show.

The only cloud on the horizon was a review I’d read by art critic Brian Sewell in the London Evening Standard.

Everyone knows, of course, that Mr Sewell can be scathing in the extreme about contemporary art so I decided not to let his damning review of the Summer Exhibition influence how I felt about the show.

Outside in the courtyard a large ‘wall-hanging’ sculpture, TSIATSIA by the artist El Anatsui, adorns the Royal Academy’s facade.

The expansive work is made of aluminium bottle-tops, printing plates and roofing sheets, plus other found materials.

It’s a striking, confident aperitif to the exhibition but I couldn’t make my mind up about this “shimmering” wall feature, mainly because it didn’t shimmer very much even on a sunny day.

Once inside the gallery, things looked more promising with Anthony Caro’s impressive steel sculpture which dominated the Wohl Entrance Hall.

Nothing new and demanding but this represented a solid start to the show, if you’ll excuse the metallic pun.

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Anthony Caro’s solid steel sculpture

One visitor contemplating the Caro was sprawled happily on another art work, thinking it was a seat which amused me no end, especially when she was told to shift!

As I ventured forth into the main exhibition alarm bells started to ring and I understood why Brian Sewell had called the show “dire” and “dismal”.

Normally a couple of smaller rooms in the show are given over to wall-to-wall paintings from lesser known artists hoping to make their mark.

This year almost every gallery featured art works stacked so high and close together that the overall impression was that the show had been co-ordinated by a hyperactive curator who’d eaten too many sweets with E numbers.

The over-the-top stacking of picture upon picture was exhausting, as my eyes darted from painting to painting in a viewing frenzy.

What worked in a couple of smaller rooms did not work for me in the larger gallery spaces which were simply too overcrowded with art works.

A little more editing and discerning pruning might have helped eliminate the mediocre works… and helped the visitor focus on the creme de la creme.

Most visitors were spotted craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the higher reaches of the gallery, often without success.

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Summer Exhibition – jamming in the art

Reaching for my migraine tablets, I was well into the 7th room before I found one painting that I actually liked amidst the daubs and dreary canvases.

There were so many paintings that looked like they’d been created in a beginners’ art class that I started to despair of finding any quality works.

The awful Lorry Art by Rose Wylie featuring roaming zebras and lions was a low point for me… this childish ‘naive’ work did little to raise my spirits.

Happily, I can’t bring you the image because of the ‘no photos’ rule in the exhibition gallery!

The good, the bad and the ugly

A close competitor in the ‘worst in show’ category was a tasteless bright yellow painting of a nude Kate Moss by renowned ’60s pop artist Allen Jones.

This montrosity brought new meaning to the word ‘kitsch’ with its vulgar visual rendering of the famous model.

It reminded me of an ill-conceived album cover from the 1970s in collision with an ‘Athena’ bedroom poster from the same era.

In another low point, comedian and sometime-artist Harry Hill’s Horse on a Surfboard, priced at £3,000, had to be a bad joke.

I’m sorry it may be trendy to admire his atrocious paintings but in my opinion they lack substance, style or wit.

Many paintings in the show aren’t awful, simply dull and derivative of better known works – surely not what you want from a major gallery show.

Some works looked like designs you’d find on greetings cards down at your local WH Smith which might be fine except this is supposed to be serious art.

Stephen Chambers is a well-respected academician but his The Good Bad painting with gold leaf and red baubles looks like a decorative Christmas card.

At least it’s visually pleasing unlike some of the paintings on show. Another contender for my most loathed art work was Mary Baillie’s Return of the Blueblack Hussar, a monstrous messy oil, going for a mere £15,000.

Just as despondency was about to set in a few glimmers appeared in the artistic wilderness, largely from established artists.

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Julian Opie at the Royal Academy

Julian Opie’s Marie Theresa #1 (pictured below) is a treat with its dramatic visual impact, boldly rendered shapes and clever colour contrasts.

Sadly this work dates from 2011 so it can hardly be described as ‘new’, but at least it improved my mood as I left the paintings and ventured into the specialist galleries.

Photography and architecture

Art isn’t the only visual form featured in the Summer Exhibition, although it’s not always popular with purist art critics.

Architecture was represented by models, plans and drawings of imaginative schemes from around the world together with a lurid green caterpillar ‘sculpture’ made from green, plastic bottles which hovered at floor level.

Architectural models have always intrigued me but I was sligthly underwhelmed by this year’s displays, especially as this has been one of my favourite sections of the exhibition in the past.

Summer Exhibition 2013

Installing the architecture exhibition

This year’s offerings seemed slight and less grandiose than usual – perhaps a sign of recessionary times or a lack of submissions?

My favourite piece was a model which reminded me of Tatlin’s tower with its gravity-defying curves.

Leaving the architecture behind, I ventured into the photography gallery where the exhibits were better than I’d expected, but were still a mixed bag.

There were a few outstanding works, notably Socar Oil Fields no 3 Baku, Azerbaijan by Edward Burtynsky, a striking image of the environmental impact of a giant oil complex.

The photograph had a menacing quality which crept up on me as I stared at the glossy image of oil-related structures sprawling across the landscape like a black widow spider.

I was also impressed by a large photograph of a landscape called Deluge NM – by Boyd and Evans – in which three parallel highways created an unnerving scene, reminiscent of a David Lynch film.

Tapestry of modern life

Just as my spirits lifted slightly, they were slapped down again with the final exhibition gallery featuring six tapestries by the ‘bad boy/girl’ of contemporary art, Grayson Perry.

The group of tapestries known as The Vanity of Small Differences – charts the rise and fall of one Tim Rakewell, inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress several centuries earlier.

Each tapestry relates to characters, incidents and objects which Perry encountered on a recent journey he made through Tunbridge Wells, Sunderland and the Cotswolds.

The artist describes it as “a safari amongst the taste tribes of Britain”.

Whilst it’s a clever idea, it’s hard to love these vulgar works which chronicle life today ‘warts and all’ – or should that be ‘tarts and all’ in the case of the Sunderland panel below?

Having once worked in Sunderland, I found the feckless characters and drinking ‘tarts’ in The Adoration of the Cage Fighters panel insulting and stereotypical. A typical southerner’s viewpoint of the north!

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Grayson Perry’s modern take on  Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress?

Rather better was Lamentation featuring the death of a computer age genius with a lament in poetic words below the visual panel.

Its rawness leapt off the cloth and throttled you… something the other panels lacked in their mix of kitsch, political commentary and social satire.

By now my senses had been overwhelmed and it was time for a sharp exit through the gift shop!

I’d begun to think about submitting my own meagre amateur daubs to next year’s summer show in the hope of producing something slightly different and radical!

It’s rare that I write a critical review of a major art show but I’m afraid that this year’s Summer Exhibition is not one of the Royal Academy’s best… in my humble opinion.

And even art critic Brian Sewell agrees with me for once!

Tammy’s top tips

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition runs from June 10 until August 18, 2013. The gallery is located on Piccadilly – the nearest Tube stops are Green Park and Piccadilly Circus.

The RA has an excellent changing programme of exhibitions – look out for its Mexican art show – A Revolution in Art – starting in July 2013.

Also in the vicinity – Liberty’s, London’s exclusive and historic shop, is located over the road. A few steps away is the attractive Burlington Arcade with its up-market shops.

Other nearby attractions are the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, a short walk away in Trafalgar Square.

Credits: Thanks to the Royal Academy for permission to use the featured images.

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