The Royal Academy summer exhibition 2016

The pleasures of the annual summer exhibition at the Royal Academy are:

  1. The sheer scale – 1,240 exhibits this year.
  2. The variety – it is not a show of One Major Artist, where you’re meant to pay close attention to the artistic development of a Matisse or a Georgia O’Keeffe – it’s such an enormous ragbag of styles, formats and artists, confusing and inspiring by turn, that so you can just like whatever you like.
  3. The prices – most of the exhibits are on sale and the exhibition booklet gives prices: it’s always amusing to be shocked and outraged at the outrageously large prices of the whoppers, but also touched by the affordability of some of the simpler works.

I’ve been to half a dozen summer shows and this seemed to me a rather dull one. Maybe I’m getting used to them, but too many of the oil paintings in particular, were just ‘meh’. Oil paintings of the canals of Venice, of a nude model in the artist’s studio, of a mantelpiece or a flight of stairs in someone’s house. Haven’t these subjects been done to death? Haven’t I seen them done a thousand times before, and much better?

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Likes

I learned about Jane and Louise Wilson from their black and white photos of ruined WWII concrete defences on the Normandy coast. Several of their other large format photos are currently on display at Tate Britain. For this show, they’ve hung six massive colour photos taken in the city of Pripyat, abandoned and never repopulated after the catastrophic nuclear accident at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Atomgrad, Nature Abhors A Vacuum VII by Jane and Louise Wilson  © Jane & Louise Wilson

Atomgrad, Nature Abhors A Vacuum VII by Jane and Louise Wilson © Jane & Louise Wilson

They are powerful depictions of derelict ruins and set off a theme which runs, here and there, throughout the rest of the show, of ruin and collapse. Immense and atmospheric though they are, the impact is slightly undermined by the perspex cover on each image, which reflects the overhead lights so it’s hard to see an entire image without a patch of shiny reflection. (As luck would have it, I recently read a gripping thriller set in the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl, Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs, which powerfully conveys the eeriness of the abandoned city, so the photos brought to life Cruz Smith’s wonderful text.)

Old favourites

You only have to visit a few of the Summer Exhibitions to begin to recognise old favourites who exhibit year after year. These include:

  • Allen Jones made his name in the 1960s with female shop window mannequins dressed in sexy underwear and posed to form a coffee table or chair. A retrospective of his work here at the Academy last year showed that his later work has included a lot of paintings of sexy women in leather boots etc in a kind of nightclub ambience of yellow and green washes of colour. There are half a dozen of these paintings in this year’s show, plus one life-size mannequin of a pert-breasted lovely with a splash of yellow paint across her. A snip at £210,000.
  • Anthony Green exhibits each year faux-naive paintings generally of himself, his wife, their house and garden, done in a cartoonish style and often with the frame cut out around the shape of the main image, for example Self-portrait for Gaston Lachaise £6,000. Reassuringly familiar.
  • Norman Ackroyd displays wonderful black and white etchings of the isles off Scotland, as seen rising from the sea, often beswirled by seagulls, with titles like Cow Rock, County Kerry (£1,100), Midsummer Sunrise, Sound of Mull £570, Skellig Revisited £570.
  • Very similar, but done in intaglio and so with darker blacks and a hint of blue, was a series of depictions of the landscape of Iceland and Antarctica by Emma Stibbon.
  • Mick Moon paints peasant fishermen scenes onto what looks like planks or cross-sections of weed. Evening Fishing £25,200.
  • Michael Craig-Martin makes very soothing big paintings of everyday objects in striking, unshaded primary colours. Space II is very big and costs £170,000.
  • Tracey Emin’s sketchy sketches of what is probably her own naked body on a bed go for £1,850 a pop.
Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016 © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring a typical large work by Michael Craig-Martin © Stephen White

Novelties

  • Allora and Calzadilla displayed a life size petrol pump emerging from a block of grey stone, titled 2 Hose Petrified Petrol Pump. Powerful. Not for sale (NFS)
  • My son like the enormous Böse Blumen by Anselm Kiefer, a vast grey slab of lead, with daubs and blodges of oil paint and, incongruously, a relief sculpture of a big leather bound book. NFS.
  • Beard Aware is the name of a huge mock-stained glass work by pranksters Gilbert and George, depicting the artists bending over to moon us, but their bottoms concealed by swathes of barbed wire. One of an extensive series which is something to do with security, apparently.
  • In the same room is a raised dais bearing a large rectangle of paper on which are two carbonised skeletons, blackened bone fragments, some of the teeth with gold fillings. Self Portrait as Charcoal on Paper by Zatorski and Zatorski, £42,000.
Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring Beard Aware by Gilbert and George, andSelf portrait as charcoal on paper by Zatorski and Zatorski © Stephen White

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016, featuring Beard Aware by Gilbert and George, and Self portrait as charcoal on paper by Zatorski and Zatorski © Stephen White

  • The Small Weston Room is devoted to 30 or so black and white photographs by the husband and wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher. They spent decades photographing isolated and often derelict industrial buildings with Teutonic precision – always on the same kind of grey, overcast day in spring or autumn (never summer) to avoid shadows, and always using a camera placed on a tripod at human eye level. These images are then arranged into squares or rectangles of prints showing the same type of building – gas tanks, cooling towers, water towers, stone works and cooling towers. My son liked the cooling towers since they had the most variety on the central design, and also often looked like space ships.
  • In the room devoted to Landscape, I liked Black Sea by Lee Wagstaff, a simple depiction of waves (£3,500) and a big colour photo of a Coal Mine, Outer Mongolia by Richard Seymour (£4,200).
  • Gillian Ayres has had a long career. She is represented here by two colourful woodcuts on paper, which channel Matisse’s late paper cutouts – Scilla and Achiote (£5,760 and £6,600 respectively).

Architecture in the room of shame

As usual one room is devoted to architects’ fanciful, space-age plans for buildings which might as well come from another planet. If architects are in any way responsible for the inhumane, rainy, windswept heartless streets and concrete rabbit warrens which so many Londoners are forced to endure, they whole profession should hang its head in shame.

Slick, clean, plastic or wooden models show the utopian world of these fantasy planners, a world where it never rains, it’s never windy, and where cars, buses, vans, lorries, cabs, coaches and diesel trains don’t – apparently – emit any toxic gases – a world free of CO2, CO, sulphur dioxide or diesel fumes. By rights this room ought to be pumped full of car and bus fumes so that visitors quickly feel sick and ill, in order to convey the awful, car-choked reality of the shiny plastic dreams peddled by so many architectural fantasists.

Themes

Room VI claimed to house works devoted to ‘the role of art in healing a shattered world’. Sentimental tripe. Art may record the appalling devastation humankind is wreaking on the planet, but I’m not aware of it forming the keystone of any notable peace agreement. In Chechnya, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq – is there a lot of healing art?

One example among scores – Christopher Hughes’ sketch of the utterly devastated landscape of Homs in Syria, depicting how actual buildings often fare in the actual world, instead of in the utopian fantasies of dreamy architects.

Room IX featured a lot of work by the Sensation artists, the Young British Artists who shot to fame with the Sensation show in 1997. (Surely they should be celebrated next year – will there be a tenwtieth-anniversary show?) As a totality, this room instantly made more visual impact than most of its predecessors. It felt like it was the product of people who were savvy with the actual, image-saturated culture we live in – compare and contrast with the very tired-feeling oil paintings of Venice or a garden.

I liked All The Fish In The Sea by David Mach (£56,000).

Transformer-Performer Double-Act VIII by EVA & ADELE (2015) Photo courtesy of Nicole Gnesa Gallery

Transformer-Performer Double-Act VIII by EVA & ADELE (2015) Photo courtesy of Nicole Gnesa Gallery

Towards the end of the show, the Lecture Room has a lot of big sculptures in it, including David Mach’s Silver Hart, a stag’s head made out of shiny coat hangers (£48,000) – though nothing will top the gorilla made of coat hangers which he exhibited a few years ago.

My son liked Wood Burner II by Guy Allott, which looked like a tea urn with space rocket fins attached.

Leila Jeffreys contributed two big colour photos of cockatoos (£2,160). There was a big b&w photo of people at a nightclub dancing – a rare window into the actual everyday world where millions of people live – the daily commute to work, meeting friends down the pub, playing football and other sports, clubbing, cafes, taking kids to school, homework, shopping, cooking – which is almost entirely ignored by the world of art and architecture alike.

Related links

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

5 August 2012

To the 244th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, where nearly 1,500 exhibits have been selected from over 11,000 entries, as usual ranging from Royal Academicians and well-established artists through to the less well-known and lucky amateurs. As usual you can buy almost all the exhibits. The RA website has a room guide; each room is curated by a different RA with a different theme. I went with my son and we liked the following (the number refers to the catalogue number):

  • 1457 The Milkmaid, a photo recreating a famous painting by Vermeer, by Raeda Saadeh (£1,400)
  • 1471-3 right at the very end of the exhibition (like last year) three sweet giclee prints by Quentin Blake (£700)
  • 8 Ken Howard‘s self-portrait in a cluttered studio in Venice (£35,000); I find these kind of slightly obscured, dirty realistic paintings a bit predicLeonard McComb, table but my son liked it
  • 55 the striking polished bronze of a young man standing by Leonard McComb RA (£600,000)
  • 261 Anomaly 1 by Peter Bill, a small, realistic painting of two mannekins kissing (£1,700)
  • 265 Aldeburgh II – one of several Anthony Green RA paintings instantly recognisable for their cutout shapes and cartoon-cum-Stanley Spenser style and rudeness (£12,000)
  • 277 Dressing for Work by Aman Mojadidi, a life size photo of a buff American-looking young man, carrying several revolvers, except he wore a long beard and turban like a jihadi
  • 344 Black treacle by Joel Penkman, a two foot square ultra-realistic painting of a Tate & Lyle treacle tin (£1,500)
  • 425 The End by Yosef Cohen, a sculpture of the mechanism of a cheap electric clock, stripped of the face to be just the little motor and three hands and the second hand painfully ticking from half past to quarter to and then falling back top half past. We both found this hypnotic and strangely gripping (£88)
  • 558-563 a set of beautiful etchings of Scottish, Lake District and Norfolk scenery in black and white by Norman Ackroyd RA (£500-950)
  • 569-572 the usual clutch of amateurish Tracey Emin polymure gravures which were by far the most bought-up items, festooned in red dots which means people have bought copies of them (they come in editions of 90)
  • 824 Samson. My son really liked this enormous painting of a mountain done in paint larded so thick and rough onto the canvas that it had cracked. By the well-known Anselm Kiefer and not for sale (in the version on display the egg in the image I’ve linked to is replaced by a rifle. I think my son liked the rifle as much as the clotted paintwork)
  • 836 My son’s favourite, Flood by Shirazeh Houshiary, 6 or 7 foot by 3 or 4 foot wide aluminium sheet covered in blue with abstract stripes giving a mysterious textured feel and concentrating in a rough black circle towards the top. (From her home page > Selected works > Painting > Flood.)
  • 840 Chicken chair by Olu Shobowale, a gruesome lifesize sculpture of a double throne made out of old chicken bones, yuk. (£1,300). Reminded me of the throne of guns created by African craftsmen from decommissioned weapons and exhibited at the British Museum a while ago.
  • 1165 Layed Back, a 3 or 4 foot square image of Snoopy made entirely of playing cards by David Mach RA (£21,600)
  • 1189 It was also David Mach who created the leopard made from coat hangers, titled Spike, probably the single most striking artefact in the exhibition (£170,000)
  • 1198, my personal favourite, I laughed out loud for a minute. Self-portrait as a litter bin by Michael Landy RA, a perfect rendering of a plastic litter bin except made in bronze (£26,000).
  • 1240 Miss Sugar Cone Unsure a ceramic sculpture of half a dozen ice cream cones melting into each other by Anna Barlow (£1,600).
  • 1250 Banded Throng by Stephen Cox RA, a set of 25 African style masks made of granite with bands of gold across them (£40,000).
  • 1272 Feathered Child I by Lucy Glendinning an extraordinary sculpture of a child crouched on the floor, made of bird feathers (£12,000).
  • 1297 Cloned Marmot with petbottle by William Sweetlove, a sculpture in silver-plated bronze of two marmots, their heads splashed with red paint. Made me laugh out loud (£3,500). On Google I found various images splashed with other coloured paints. Maybe it’s a whole series.
  • 1475 Heaven’s Breath by Kenneth Draper RA, a wonderful 3D construction with metal slivers, like sperms suspended an inch or two over the surface. Very sci-fi. This image doesn’t do it justice, it’s much bigger and more haunting.
  • 1188 Yogini: Horse by Stephen Cox RA. A 6 foot sculpture in granite of a woman’s nude body but with the head of a horse superimposed the length of its torso so that the horse’s eyes are the breasts and the horse’s nostrils are over the loins. Big, striking and disturbing. (£60,000)
  • 1266 Spillage by Rebecca Griffiths, a big silicon and aluminium sculpture of a cloak slung over truncated shoulders, with no head either, but the (metal) cloak clinging to the outline of two shapely buttocks. The Turin Buttocks, as I renamed it. Them.
  • 908 Walking Drawings, Cumbrian Heavy Horses I by Everton Wright, an enormous photo (lamda c-type print) of horses on a beach (£5,500).
  • 1176-80 pencil sketches of nude women by Ralph Brown RA. Not absolutely brilliant but suggestive, poignant, intimate, fragile cartoons of the female figure (£2,760).
  • 579-581 three exquisite screenprints by Stephen Chambers RA (£1,350-£1,430). Chambers exhibited a small set of similar dream-like images in primary colours on a paisley background last year, that time of figures falling in a dreamlike way out of trees. I like them a lot; they’re like good quality book illustrations; they have the same dreamy feeling as the Moomintroll books!
  • 1461 Ndutu, a striking photo (ultrachrome in acrylic block) by well-known photographer David Usill.

From which I realise that I tend to prefer sculptures, and then prints and etchings and photos, to paintings; and prefer abstract or quirky paintings to more routine, “realistic” ones. In my humble opinion painting is a tired medium in which it’s very difficult to do anything new; whereas there’s still lots of unexplored space in sculpture and objects and installations which can flexibly reflect, in unanticipated ways, the vastness of the world around us and the complexity of human experience.

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