Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2014

The Royal Academy Summer exhibition is always a joy because there are so many exhibits (this year 1,262) and so many artists (200?) that you are not having to focus on some eminent artist’s life and career (eg Matisse or Malevich) but are liberated to stroll around and look at what you fancy in any order you fancy and to like or dislike whatever you fancy.

That said, this year’s selection seemed less interesting than the last few years’, maybe because I’m becoming familiar with the same old faces (or styles), maybe because contemporary art really is surprisingly limited in scope and invention. For me a couple of themes emerged:

Copies

At some period in the past (18th, 19th centuries?) Art was responsible for making iconic images. Admittedly, most people’s everyday lives were dominated, image-wise, by the kind of folk art shown in the current Tate Britain exhibition. But ‘high art’ routinely created great and iconic images which were copied, parodied, set the tone.

By contrast, many of the best images in this exhibition were copies of artefacts in the real world which owe their greatness to the original designers. Examples include the striking painting of a Lego figure by Belinda Jane Channer (£4,000), a painting of a raptor made striking by Jurassic Park, Martin Craig-Smith’s characteristic outlines of a violin, a spotlight, a takeaway coffee cup, David Mach’s pin sculpture of a Snow Leopard or playing card collage of a dollar bill – The paper it’s printed on – which both owe their power to the beauty of the object and which prompt only momentary impressment at the ingenuity of the media before you blink and forget them.

My point being that, an aspect of contemporary art is its overshadowedness by the dense jungle of images and artefacts we see, consume and interact with all day every day.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Pride of place in the entrance vestibule was given to Cake Man (above, centre), a life-size mannikin made of Dutch wax, African printed cotton, globe head, steel baseplate, leather, gold, polyester and plaster by Yinka Shonibare RA and costing £162,000

Clichés

I saw a lot of the same thing: Anthony Green’s cutout Beryl-Cook-like paintings of domestic settings, often with a naked lady, often with the artist’s comically intrusive eye present; Norman Ackroyd‘s wonderful watercolours of the Shetland scenery; a big black painting that reminded me of Rothko, lots of slant-eyed naive art that reminded me of Picasso, lots of nudes – always nude women – photos where contemporary people act out classical paintings, satirical versions of Edwardian children’s illustration except the figures are taking drugs or giving the viewer the finger, big splurge paintings, colourful ones incorporating stylished images or photos from pop culture, a cloak made from wine bottle labels, foot-tall statuettes of human-satyr figures with big penises, small prints of a robin and kingfisher etc.

Paula Rego, Prince Pig's Courtship  Lithograph, 95 x 70 x 4 cm © Paula Rego. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Paula Rego, Prince Pig’s Courtship
Lithograph, 95 x 70 x 4 cm
© Paula Rego. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

My overall impression was how very, very hard it is to establish a voice, to do something new, to  make yourself heard above the jungle hubbub of thousands and thousands of other artists all working old themes and ideas and styles and media.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Writing

In the surrealists and especially in Jasper Johns, when I discovered him at school, I was immensely excited at the use of text in paintings, random phrases from packing boxes or flags etc seemed to me to lift painting out of its classical limitations and make its interaction with the actual world I live in seem limitless. However, even this has become dull. Incorporating text in an artwork has gone from explosively subversive to stiflingly, Victorianly preachy.

Thus works which told us ‘We work in the dark’, ‘Waste not the remains o the day’, all schools should be art schools’, ‘More poetry is needed’, ‘A splash of red paint is needed’, along with two big whiteboards onto which were painted, respectively, a radio 4 interview by Eddie Mair with David Nott, a doctor who served in Bosnia (on the left in the first photo, above) (price £100,000), and an open letter to Michael Gove pleading for more art education in schools (on the right in the photo below) by Bob and Roberta Smith (£36,000). What seemed to me ‘subversive’ and exciting in the 1970s has become a series of committee meeting memos and action points.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Architecture

There’s always an architecture room which I think of as the Room of Shame. In my humble opinion architecture has completely failed the people of Britain, creating inhuman and soul-destroying blocks of flats and windswept shopping precincts the length and breadth of the land, like the horrible town centres I recently visited of Ashford and King’s Lynn. This room always strikes me as darkly satirical because it is full of fantastical science-fiction fantasies of outlandish buildings, a handful of which will be built by international superstar architects like Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid, while each year hundreds of thousands of little brick boxes are created in soul-less estates and plastic cul de sacs in the Thames Gateway or outside ruined horrible cities.

It is for this reason that I very much liked the big (5 foot square?) photo by Jooney Woodward of Rhoose Point, a new estate on the Welsh coast, a characterless alien set of plain suburban brick houses plonked down next to the coast with no thought for context or setting, with one desolated-looking kid walking through its dead drives. That is the architecture which is created year in, year out to make Britain the dull and boring country it is.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

In this room I quite like the hoopy metal sculptures. a hanging sculpture of numerous profiles of human faces which you can’t make out against the wood doorframe, and the two photographs to the right of the central door, which are views of the same rural scene in spring and winter. But too much of the rest seemed undistinguished and samey.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Funny

Two pieces made me laugh out loud: Martin Creed’s work number 398 which is a shaped fluorescent tube. As far as I know American minimalists were displaying fluorescent tubes in the 1960s, so this is an antique idea, but he had shaped it to read ASSHOLES and the bluntness and simplicity made me laugh. And in the same room was a microphone with a hairbrush instead of a microphone. A quick simple chuckle but hardly going to set the world on fire.

Ceal Floyer, Solo (Edition of 3 plus 2 artist's proofs), 2006  Microphone stand, hairbrush, 150 x 50 x 50 cm  Photo © Nick Ash. Courtesy by the Artist and Esther Schipper

Ceal Floyer, Solo (Edition of 3 plus 2 artist’s proofs), 2006
Microphone stand, hairbrush, 150 x 50 x 50 cm
Photo © Nick Ash. Courtesy by the Artist and Esther Schipper

What I liked

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