Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London


I’m dragging my damp feet a little on the way to the Royal Academy’s 244th Summer Exhibition: I don’t tend to enjoy seeing those beautiful galleries stuffed ceiling-high with thousands of uninspired animal paintings, still lifes and landscapes, and I find the show’s lack of engagement with new media (if we can still even call it that) borderline perverse.

The show has some of the same issues as an art fair, and many visitors treat it as such (every conversation I overhear about the work on my visit is about whether a particular painting will match the décor of a certain room).

There’s certainly bad stuff – the sexual whimsy of a woman’s milkily painted glowing legs and stilettoed feet on the floor of a New York hotel room (the Empire State Building can be seen from the window), a looming painting of someone I’m fairly certain must be modelled on Tilda Swinton wearing a clownish white outfit and leering out of the canvas. There’s a bronze sculpture of a curtain, which folds around the curves of two buttocks, and armfuls of paintings that imitate Monet, Cezanne and Renoir.

There are a greater variety of pleasures to be found amongst the glut this year, however – part of the RA’s move to include younger artists, and it’s great to see the paintings of John Hoyland, who passed away last year, in the Wohl Central Hall – bright, vivid abstract expressionist works of primary reds, greens and yellows, that create a sense of layering planes of paint.

The best room by far is the Large Weston Room, curated on the theme of ‘light and earth’, which sounds unpromising, but includes some works that are given a decent amount of space around them: Cornelia Parker’s Brontëan Abstracts (close-up photographs of scorings out and corrections on Charlotte Brontë’s manuscript of Jane Eyre), and a red and yellow abstract zigzag drawing by the reliably brilliant Turner Prize winner Tomma Abts.

In the sculpture rooms there is a rough painting by Phyllida Barlow in which a maroon, mattress-like painted shape with two black holes for eyes, crinkles and drags the paper on which it sits, creating a sense of uneasy mass. The final room, with paintings by Gary Hume and Tracy Emin and a bin sculpture by Michael Landy, is also confident, exuberant and decently put together.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and moaning about curators in gallery and museum practice, but the Summer Show is an excellent example of their value both as selectors and as organisers of space. If this continues, the exhibition could claw back its relevance – the door seems to have been pushed open.

To 12 August (0844 209 0051;