Is the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition getting better?

I finally caught up with the Royal Academy Summer Show and found some works which I thought really exciting. This of course shouldn’t be a matter of surprise; there is always work there which is interesting and innovative. But the Summer Exhibition does not always give that impression: the sheer numbers of works on offer and the density of the hanging can make the good stuff  hard to spot. This year it felt a little more authoritative and a bit less like a local art show multiplied a hundred times. It was helped by the fact that the organisers had managed to bring in several really major works. I particularly admired the Anselm Kiefer;  I have seen loads of photographs of  Kiefer paintings but not enough of the real thing so I was pleased to discover that the RA is having a  major Kiefer retrospective from September 27 to December 14.


There was also a fine sculpture by the late Sir Anthony Caro


and a small and rather desirable sculpture by Phyllida Barlow which would be rather easier to place around the house than  Dock now showing at the Tate. It costs £60,000, and I idly tried to work out how much the Tate exhibition would be worth if it were priced pro rata by volume: I reckoned something of the order of £25 billion.



What is wonderful in any show, is when you find a new artist whose work you really like. The Caro and the Barlow were both in Gallery IV, curated by Hughie O’Donoghue and so was this piece by Irish artist Paul Mosse. It doesn’t photograph as well as it appears in real life, but, even here, you can see that the texture is fascinating.  It seemed, so far as I could judge, to be made at least in part by splintered wood. It made me look up Mosse’s other work. The interesting, muddy pink, fleshy colour appears quite a lot and on his website there were larger ones that I liked even better. Mosse tends to use unconventional and abject materials including packaging, dust, nails,  the everyday detritus of modern life. He works a lot by constructing,  deconstructing and restructuring  to produce a layered effect with fracturing and fissuring playing an important part. Though some of his works are proper 3D sculptures others, like this,  he describes as 2½D


Also in this room were works by the Guyanian born artist Frank Bowling. Bowling is known as a colourist and I particularly liked the vibrancy of Buttoned it up again from Barney and Marko. These pieces have a simplicity which is entirely deceptive. This work  essentially comprises three bands of  shaded colour plus some gold bits; anyone could do it, you might think,  but try yourself to produce banded colour that works and you suddenly find  how difficult it is. Those edges don’t just happen like that by themselves. Look at the photograph of the Caro and you can also see hanging above it, another of Bowling’s banded works – this time in blues and pinks and reds.


There was of course loads of stuff which I  did not like at all, some because it just seemed boring, or garish, other times remarkably amateurish, or all three. It made me muse about the Grayson Perry sentiment quoted on the RA website that “the difference between an amateur and professional artist is interesting. A professional is someone who got lucky and found an audience willing to pay for their work.” There is luck and luck. As I went round every now and then I would see a small picture which I liked and look it up only to find it was done by a name I recognised; often it was Cornelia Parker. Those that get lucky appear to have something that differentiates them from the rest.

However, I continue to be unimpressed with Martin Creed. Really, what is the point of a neon spelling out Assholes? Apart from anything else, Creed is British and should know that it is spelt Arseholes.

work illustration

I have this image of Creed’s headmaster telling him, “it is not clever and it is not funny.” The headmaster was wrong;  it may not be funny, but  it certainly is clever when you can get the British public to pay for them. They come as an edition of three each costing £53,036.

There were the oddities too. Towards the end of the exhibition was a work by James Turrell  called Sensing Thought which comprised a rectangle of light which the blurb on the wall said drew viewers in and held their attention. Surprisingly, I found it did just that, though the contemplative atmosphere was somewhat marred by a rather anoying soundtrack which I initially took to be part of the work but which then appeared to be coming from an exhibit next door.











In the architectural room there was a bicycle by Ron Arad, mystifyingly  called Two Nuns. It  was a striking enough object and which I took at first to be entirely sculptural.  A video on the wall showed that it could actually be ridden and suddenly it became a whole lot more interesting, though costing £100,000 it might be prudent not to use it for the daily commute and leave it chained up at the station bicycle rack.



You see I have put the price in again. That in itself is part of the fascination of the Summer Exhibition – the prices are visible. Everywhere you go, you hear people muttering, “do you know how much that cost? And if that is more generally said in shocked disbelief than in anticipation of a purchase, there is still plenty that is affordable. The rooms showing smaller works were as busy as ever. A couple of years ago I pointed out the pulling power of cats. It is still there, as are robins and scenes of London.  Tracey Emin was doing pretty well too with some small and moderately priced etchings. They have probably all sold out by now.

I suddenly realised that rather than survey the exhibition as a whole, you could get a pretty good impression of what was popular with the public by looking at the greetings cards. So here they are; the cards of the 2014 Exhibtion.


You can see on the bottom row that the robin is present and correct; oh, sorry it is Spare Stonechat.  There is the questionable sentiment that All schools should be art schools; there is a cat; there is a horse. What is that? There on the second row up is the Frank Bowling I admired. It does admittedly make rather a nice greeting card. Of well; it is still a very fine painting.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition runs until Sunday August 17.


One thought on “Is the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition getting better?

  1. Jeremy M

    The Paul Mosse Pink Floor Piece impressed me too – made seemingly from artificial materials (such as plastic drinking straws) it cleverly presented an organic appearance and texture, rather as if a dense sea bed sponge (or a very large pan of overcooked porridge) had been sliced horizontally with a sharp knife.
    I wanted to ride the Ron Arad bicycle…all that tension in those wheels fabricated from stainless steel sheet strips shaped like an Elizabethan lady’s lace ruffs (rather a nun’s) should deliver good suspension….
    Prize for the worst exhibit in my humble opinion goes to Doric Night by Sean Scully, an enormous oil – I suppose it must be termed painting – composed of several identically sized oblong panels of black, grey and dark grey – (imaginative colour selection, Sean) Scully’s work is apparently considered to be influenced by minimalism and if this is in the sense that the piece has very little artistic merit then one can only agree. Subtly political? perhaps as an unnecessary reminder to us of how deeply dull politics, even those of the birthplace of democracy – can be.
    Finally, The Bisto Kids Gone Wrong deserves a mention – a pair of partly comic, partly threatening male and female mannequins which were harlequins and hoodlums combined. The soft upholstered texture of their stuffed bodies contrasting with the hard steel of their double-barrelled snouts had something of a “Clockwork Orange” quality. This ambivalence raised questions, and hinted at layers of meaning, in a way that some of us believe is one of the functions of a work of art.

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