ART / All on a summer day: Anyone for a Pimms? Iain Gale invites an art dealer, a curator, an artist and an architect to the 226th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London

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There's a lot of mediocrity here.' We're just two rooms into the 226th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and already one of my companions, the art dealer Offer Waterman, is expressing disappointment. While, to the Victorians, the Summer Exhibition was the bench-mark of contemporary art, it has gradually become little more than a date in the London season. Or has it? 'A unique chance to see the whole range of contemporary art in one place,' trumpeted this year's press release. To test the claim I've persuaded Waterman and three others - a curator, an artist and an architect - to take on the marathon of viewing 1,000 works in 14 galleries.

Entering the first room, both Waterman and I are drawn to two darkly romantic canvases. Unfortunately they date from the 1940s, painted by the late William Rothenstein. Looking for something more recent, we find an abstract wall piece by Spanish artist Antoni Tapies. The artist, Mick Moon, recently created RA, is predictably impressed: 'I think it's good to see work by international artists hung in a show where you wouldn't normally expect it.'

Judy Collins, curator of the Modern Collection at the Tate Gallery, does not agree. 'I'm not happy about the inclusion of international artists. Tapies just doesn't look right here.' But is his presence indicative of a broadened base? Not really. Tapies is an Honorary RA. The presence of a recent work, lacking the punch with which he made his name, is nothing more than a tribute to the grand old man of Spanish painting by the grand old men of British art: Bellany, Blake, Paolozzi and Weight, whose works hang nearby.

A more surprising inclusion is a painting by the underrated British abstractionist Basil Beattie. But it doesn't seem to be enough for my fourth companion, the young architect Andrew Wright, of the Richard Rogers partnership, whose Holy Island scheme has just won the RA's Bovis / Architects' Journal Award. He sums up what he's seen so far: 'There's a certain dryness about these main rooms. In the key areas the pictures all tend to be by leading Academicians.' As we walk through Gallery II, Wright heads off in search of 'something fresh', and promises to catch up with us in the architecure gallery.

Meanwhile, Waterman is enthusing about Allen Jones's Portrait of Darcey Bussell and David Inshaw's untitled oil 'with a Balthus sort of feel to it'. Collins is stopped in her tracks by Robert Medley's Preparation for the Execution, a hard- hitting painting which reinterprets the theme of the despoliation of Christ in the context of the Bosnian conflict.

As always, the large South Room houses prints and sculpture. A crowd has gathered around what appears to be a bronze fountain. One man is washing his hands in it. In fact it is a sculpture by William Pye; an elegant exercise in equilibrium whose water surface teeters with tension just above the lip of the vessel. It seems an unusual inclusion and is certainly different, but in a way it jars too much. 'His work is fine at Heathrow,' says Collins, 'but here?' Waterman is similarly sanguine, summing up the crowd consensus: 'I suppose it's very calming, but it's not for me. I'm not ready for it yet.' What he is ready for is a large sculpture by Nicola Hicks - Bull Woman. 'She's one of the best sculptors since Frink.' he says. 'But I don't think it will sell here. I'm surprised she even thought it would be suitable for the RA.'

What, then, is 'suitable'? Evidently Christopher Robinson's small etching of Dame Catherine Cookson's Hands. 'Look how many copies they've sold of it,' says Waterman. 'I really rate that.' Which is more than can be said for the large sculpture alongside it. 'Who on earth is this by?' he asks. 'It's terrible.' It's Naiads, a steel sculpture by Ivor Abrahams RA. 'I'm amazed,' says Waterman. 'I liked his show at Bernard Jacobson.'

Leaving it, we follow Collins and Moon through to the Small South Gallery, traditionally the most conservative room of the show, and, judging by the number of red dots, the most popular. 'There are less cats and sheep this year,' says Collins. Gone too are the lemons, and the pig count is down to one.

'Maybe,' Collins suggests, 'the British are really looking at a wider range of subject matter.' Waterman doesn't think so. 'There's a lot of the usual Ken Howard school. It's just plagiarism. I don't understand why people who do that get in.' But isn't this just the sort of art in which Waterman himself deals? 'Sure. Nine out of 10 of my clients buy this sort of work, but I have sophisticated artists in my gallery. I don't want plagiarists.' He manages to pick out a few 'originals': Jean Palmer, Martin Yeoman, Alexander Mackenzie, Susan Foord. But these are all he is able to find, chiefly because we can't see all the pictures. 'They're hung at the ceiling. Actually, I've told one of my artists not to show here for that reason. I mean, I wouldn't show you a picture on the ceiling of my office, would I?'

Moon takes issue. 'It's not in the brief of the show to hang 'professionally'. I think in general the main rooms are hung very well.' Collins, too, is pleased by the overall hang. 'I think there's more space and air this year. The pictures have been hung with an eye to their being pictures.' That's certainly evident in the huge Gallery III, where Julian Meredith's vast translucent woodcut of a whale looms overhead. Actually it hangs above the show's biggest crowd-puller, the Pimms bar, which provides the central focus for an exhibition which might itself best be seen as a huge conceptual performance sculpture on the theme of British art.

Now Moon has found something he likes: several large new abstracts by John Hoyland, hung throughout the main galleries. For Collins, though, this distribution does not work: 'I'm not too sure about Hoyland and other academicians popping up all over the place. It doesn't serve them well. But perhaps it's a new policy.' On one of the walls of academicians, between Mary Fedden and Leonard Rosoman, Waterman spots something. A portrait by Norman Blamey RA. 'If I had money to spend here this is what I'd buy.'

Moving with increasing speed now, he and I enter Gallery V and leave as quickly, disenchanted with the absurdity of hanging small watercolours 20ft over our heads. 'Why hang them at all?' despairs Waterman. Next door in the architecture gallery, Wright is waiting. He has come by way of the other rooms and what seems to have made the greatest impression is the preponderance of works by older academicians. 'The strength of the Summer Exhibition is that it allows young talent to come forward; it would be nice to see that more prominent in other galleries rather than just here in architecture. Here, young architects can stand alongside leading academicians. That's an honour and it allows the public to see a cross-section of the work going on in Britain.'

Although the crowds are not as evident in the architecture room, those who are looking at the schemes on display seem to evince a genuine interest. 'To be honest,' says Wright, 'people don't come here to buy architectural models. But it's vital that they see the sort of principles which people like Will Alsop are trying to push forward. It's good, too, that architecure is beginning to spill out of this one room. It should be integrated with the rest of the exhibition.'

But if the architecture raises our hopes, they stand to be dashed in the Octagon. 'This room's a complete mess,' says Collins. 'They just don't seem to know what to do with it. And I'm always disappointed by the sculpture.' The room is dominated by a massive work in steel - obelisks topped with an ice- cream cone of a flame. It intrigues Moon but outrages Waterman: 'That's one of the worst pieces I've ever seen,' he says. 'Who's it by?' It's by Phillip King, respected British sculptor, CBE and RA. Slightly unnerved, Waterman stands by his judgement: 'It's a hideous monstrosity.' Even Moon is surprised. 'It's very different to the Kings that I grew up with.' At pounds 55,000 it's also the most expensive work in the show.

We're nearing the end. Collins finds an engaging work by Karl Weschke, Moon is taken with Dhruva Mistry and Waterman pauses to admire John Ward's portrait of John and Jane's Girls ('very pretty'). Having searched in vain for the promised 'angst and confrontation' of the admirably conceived new gallery of work by RA students, I head for the exit.

'There are just too many pictures,' says Waterman. Apparently there are 400 less this year but it's still too crowded.' Yet, for all this indigestible vastness I can't help feeling that what we've just experienced is hardly the 'whole range of contemporary art'. Waterman isn't surprised: 'You can't judge the state of British art in the context of a Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It's better this year - with a broader base - but I can't see someone like Damien Hirst ever wanting to show here.' Moon doesn't see that as a problem: 'It helps to keep unfashionable idioms alive and kicking. It's the tired response of some critics and even some artists that is the main handicap of the show. It claims to be nothing but itself. It's an enjoyable bazaar.'

For Collins, it does hold something more. 'I look after British art of all periods, and I do think that this show is quite a good barometer. It always tells me quite a lot. And it's changing. Ten years ago Tony Cragg wouldn't have been made an RA, which he just has, and I'd be surprised if in 10 years' time the Summer Exhibition doesn't embrace the avant-garde.

For the moment, though, whatever its organisers and critics might want it to be, the RA Summer Exhibition remains more cocktail party than cutting edge. Nice try. Anyone for a Pimms?

SUMMER EXHIBITION: A USER'S GUIDE

The Summer Exhibition was first held in 1769. It is the UK's largest open exhibition, to which any artist, amateur or professional, may submit work. RAs may show a maximum of six works, others are limited to three works.

The 1994 selection committee of 15 Royal Academicians comprised Sir Philip Dowson PRA (chairman), Norman Ackroyd, Norman Adams, Jean Cooke, Fred Cuming, Gus Cummins, Ken Howard, John Hoyland, Sonia Lawson, Ralph Brown, Dhruva Mistry, John Wragg, Trevor Dannatt, Sir Norman Foster and Michael Hopkins.

Most works are for sale at prices ranging, this year, from pounds 25 to pounds 55,000.

Number of works submitted in 1994: 13,090

Number of works hung: 1,376

Attendance in 1993: 135,501

Total sales: pounds 1.1m

Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly W1 (071-439 7438). To 14 August. Daily, 10.00am-6.00pm

(Photograph omitted)

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