The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, review: 'Not enough courage in its own mission'

 The 248th Summer Exhibition features works by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Gilbert and George, and the Chapman Brothers

Karen Wright
Monday 13 June 2016 16:45
Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016
Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016

The Royal Academy Summer show is a fixture - like Wimbledon and strawberries - in the social calendar. With over 12,000 submissions the selection committee chose 1250 works to fill the 10 rooms spanning the Piano Nobile. The coordinator for this the 248th Summer Exhibition, the much respected Richard Wilson Royal Academician who chose to focus on artists who work as a duo.

Putting them together sadly just highlighted how they all worked in different ways with varying degrees of success. Bravo to the admirable Wilson twins alerting the viewer to past disaster. There is a garish light-bulb work by the always strident Tim Noble and Sue Webster. Further along a large Gilbert and George, albeit the first for the Royal Academy, and several Chapman Brothers works.

Cramming too much work into even large galleries sadly makes everything look tacky, and this is particularly true of the room with an interesting video portrait work by Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman floating over a sea of small and undistinguishable paintings. Nearby the architecture room has become an afterthought with the idea of doing unrealised projects leading to a real morass of stuff, with little of anything to focus on.

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2016

In previous years sculpture has had a hard time in the mix but this year it has fared a bit better. While veteran David Nash’s RA’s blackened wood monolith triumphed by winning the £25,000 Charles Wollaston Award, my personal highpoint was the discovery of the wittily entitled Head Case by Cathie Pilkington RA containing her distinctive mix of found objects, in this case dolls that often morphed in their strangeness to the realms of Magritte and Picasso while maintaining their own obvious humility.

Pilkington’s room installed with David Mach RA contained some wonderfully thoughtful juxtapositions illustrating that paintings like Death of the Blind Sister by Paula Rego can have as much spatial weight as any of the large sculptures nearby.

So has Wilson managed to pull off a coherent exhibition that adds anything to the discourse of the moment? It is good that sales benefit the Royal Academy Schools and judging from the many red dots on preview day valuable funds are raised. The problem is that of not having enough courage in its own mission.

Why invite artists like El Anatsui, Gilbert and George and Anselm Kiefer to participate giving them the biggest spaces and most sympathetic hang with even the wall texts pointing to the ambition of the Royal Academy to be International, and then claim to be an open democratic submission? The jarring between the respectfully and soberly installed photographs by German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher next to the car boot ambience of the architecture room makes the disparity of real commitment only too obvious. Still dodging the be-hatted ladies drinking gin and tonics amongst the works merely highlighted the difficulty of pulling off a coherent exhibition for this particular audience.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition continues until 21 August

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