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The RA Summer Exhibition 2023: from the bland to the bravura

Visitors should come prepared: wear comfortable shoes, stay hydrated, put an energy bar in the pocket, and keep hope in their heart.

By Michael Prodger

How do you make sense of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition? Both jamboree and jumble sale; both snapshot of the art that is really being made across the land outside the gallery ecosystem, and a cry for recognition by aspiring home painters. It has always been a bewildering affair in which amateurs measure themselves against professional artists, academicians and invitees, and it is, by its very nature, an exhibition about numbers as much as art.

The selection committee, this year under the painter David Remfry, was presented with 16,500 submissions by hopeful applicants. John Constable once had the indignity of sitting on the selection panel and hearing one of his own works dismissed by his fellow committee members as “a nasty green thing”. Contemporary committee members would be less than human if they didn’t bite back far worse.

The seven sage academicians looked at each submission – head tilted to one side, head tilted to the other – and gave about 15,000 of them the thumbs down. Nevertheless, the 1,613 works that have made it on to the RA’s walls are more than enough. Far more.

This year, as with every year, the visitor should come prepared: wear comfortable shoes, stay well hydrated, put an energy bar in the pocket, play an earful of calming whale song, and keep hope in their heart. Sensory cacophony beckons – installations of cloth, resin and handy detritus; paintings big and small hung eight deep; bendy ceramics and architectural models. All of this, apparently, answering to Remfry’s chosen theme for the year, the magnificently airy: “Only connect.”

Whatever that means. There is little that is overtly political or state-of-the-nationish here and a vast amount that is simply well-mannered – swathes of tidy abstracts and minimalism-for-kitchens pictures; lots and lots of landscapes and, of course, trees; a menagerie of animals; portraits and nudes; paint applied both thick and thin, suggestive of something about their creator’s souls; the pretentious and the straightforward; acid colour, Farrow and Ball shades, monochromes… The human urge to create is here bursting out in all its forms.

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[See also: Edward Hopper’s city of still lives]

But oh, the profusion. If the average, large monographic gallery exhibition contains, say, 100-120 pictures, how then to make sense of north of ten times that number? By watching out for eye-snaggers, perhaps, works crying out for a second and third look. There are not too many of those among the academicians, who seem to have interpreted “Only connect” as meaning only connect to the stuff they have been doing for years. Hence a cluster of Michael Craig-Martin’s soullessly immaculate outline pictures; a splat of same-old, same-old splayed Tracey Emins; a batch of underwhelming Joe Tilson paintings of tiles and tracery; some Yinka Shonibare-ish Yinka Shonisbares. All are put in their place by a showstopping installation by Paula Rego, who died a year ago. Her open cabinet – a sort of sinister polyptych or macabre Wunderkammer ­– contains a gathering of her fabric mannequins and painted panels to make a deeply unnerving mise-en-scène.

There are a great deal of bland works on display – that is statistically inevitable. While the world would keep spinning happily on its axis without most of the exhibits, there are nevertheless more than enough works of skill and invention to offset the urge for snark.

Graham Dean’s large, shadowy watercolour of a black woman’s head is moodily accomplished; Kaye Donachie’s portrait But the Clouds Roll On has an enigmatic, haunted quality that recalls the Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck; Julian Hicks’s Looking for Stubbs, showing a sausage dog on its hind legs, is a droll pastiche of George Stubbs’ monumental horse portrait Whistlejacket; Graeme Wilcox’s Pilgrim, a striking monochrome head in profile against a bare background, has the intensity of Spanish Golden Age religious painting; while, in the architecture section, The Tree and the Truss from Design + Make at Architectural Association Hooke Park, splices a trunk and a roof support with engineering ingenuity and hugely satisfying aesthetics.

There are plenty more. But the work I coveted was Henry Krokatsis’s time-stilling Chandelier No 4. It is a bravura exercise in tone, a black-and-white painting formed from smoke using votive candles which somehow manages to transmit both the blur and the sheen of the brass and candles of a church chandelier. And something more too: in the smoke that makes the picture are the remains of prayers. It offers a moment of quiet among the babble and, here at least, “Only connect” has meaning.

[See also: Frieda Hughes interview: “The Bible taught me everything”]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out