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13 June 2024

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: decorous, polite, all too safe

The artists at this year’s inoffensive show have very little to say.

By Michael Prodger

If the 256th iteration of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is anything to go by, Britain’s artists are every bit as exhausted by the modern world and the frenetic events of the past few years as the rest of the nation. Time was when we looked to artists to interpret and make sense of things, but this year’s cohort has turned its back on the more insistent swathes of reality. The mood emanating from more than 1,700 works, by both professional and amateur artists, is not that they are clapped out ­– though many clearly are – but rather that the decorous is more appealing, or at least less effortful, than the contentious. There are, for example, more monochrome works on display than in any Summer Exhibition in recent memory. This might be a sprawling, heterogeneous gathering, but it is both a tasteful one and a safe one. It is a show of small pleasures – too often so small they barely register – rather than big statements.

Some of this is down to the exhibition committee under the sculptor Ann Christopher RA. Each of the seven curators was given responsibility for a room or two, and what is on display is therefore a reflection of their individual tastes. Nevertheless, Christopher, Hurvin Anderson, Anne Desmet, Hughie O’Donoghue, Cornelia Parker, Veronica Ryan and the architectural ensemble Assemble had a lot to work with: the Summer Exhibition is the largest open-submission show in the world and the selection panel had to winnow 16,500 hopefuls and then find a way to hang those who made it through. Perhaps as a result of their travails, the committee decided on a theme, “Making Space”, though quite what this airy concept means – or why it is there at all – is unclear.

The prevailing politeness has affected many of the big names too. In the main exhibition wall a huge collage of woodcuts of sunflowers overshadowing a body by Anselm Kiefer hangs next to works by Richard Serra (who died in March), Rachel Whiteread and the RA president, Rebecca Salter – all in black and white. None are artists instinctively drawn to colour, but together they strike a sombre note in the RA’s largest and brightest exhibition space and bring a whiff of interior decoration to the curation (which is even more tangible elsewhere). They do have the effect, however, of making Frank Bowling’s series of pictures on the wall opposite sing out in both their layered colour and sense that they embody more of the artist’s self than merely the bit that resides in the pattern-making cortex.

As has become something of the norm, the majority of the better-known artists sink rather than shine in the throng. Jim Dine, Michael Craig-Martin and, reliably, Tracey Emin are among those unable to rise above their own limitations. Meanwhile Gillian Wearing, Humphrey Ocean, Cornelia Parker and Sean Scully are simply drowned out. Royal Academicians are permitted to submit up to six of their own works to the exhibition each year, but one wonders why they would take it on. Some sales may follow but, year after year, few emerge in reputational credit. Anne Desmet has even hung her own works in the rooms she has curated, which seems rather akin to an author reviewing their own book on Amazon.

Cornelia Parker, in the room allocated to her, introduces a gentle irreverence. She squeezes in some 240 pictures into her space – all, by necessity, small. Among them are Stephen Chambers’s Dunderarse and Thunderbum, a droll pair of pictures of a man and a woman abusing one another with antiquated insults. Alas, Parker also finds room for the usual display of mimsy pictures of cats, dogs and birds, a genre that in its knowing kitsch has become the Summer Exhibition equivalent of a trio of flying pottery ducks on the wall. Lisa Badau’s Strutting, depicting a crow with attitude, shows how an animal can be painted with real effect.

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Elsewhere, among a generally disappointing display of sculpture, there should be a moratorium called on soft sculptures hanging wanly and completely unmemorably from walls or the ceiling. And if no rationale can be agreed on for their continued presence they should simply be banned: no one’s life is improved by a limp and meaningless puddle of fabric. 

A more ancient irritation, high hanging, also continues. Having a painting displayed on “the line” – a little over head height – was traditionally the artist’s aim; a position too far above that and a picture would become indecipherable. Gainsborough was one of many RAs who fell out with the institution when they were “skied”, and several artists this year have similar cause for complaint. Two small landscapes by Nicholas Blanning, for example, look promising and atmospheric but they peer down from such an unfeasibly lofty spot, who is to know? The always rewarding Adam Dant is another to suffer from this curatorial vertigo – all the more baffling in that his work makes telling use of script. The RA gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

New trends this year include a preponderance of paintings of shop fronts and street corners – a favourite subject of aspirational mobile-phone photographers – and the use of old books to be cut out or overprinted. Meanwhile, Tunnock’s Tea Cakes foil wrappers seem to have become a material of choice: at least three works use them, though without an obvious rationale. One can only hope the artists were sponsored by the Glaswegian patissiers.

What, though, is worth a second, or third, look? Paul Benney’s huge graphite drawing of a 1,000-year-old olive tree, Casino, is a mesmeric demonstration piece of skill and close looking; Sharon Drew’s Unfurl 1, a meandering broad-brush lick of pale pigment, reveals the sensuality inherent in putting paint on canvas; Christopher Thompson’s Across the River, showing little more than a cottage by the water in winter, has a detail and disconcerting strangeness that recall Andrew Wyeth. And The Great Survivor, a luscious green-hued picture of a bare dandelion head by Kaye Maahs, is simply a fine piece of painting and a contemplative modern variant on the venerable lineage of flower pictures.

In an exhibition totally lacking in bawdiness, or indeed much interest in the human body at all, it falls to Wolfgang Tillmans to inject a welcome dose of full dorsal nudity with Neuer Rückenakt, a monumental photograph of a naked man whose in-your-face buttocks and bollocks offer their own commentary on the prevailing turgidity of the works around him.

Meanwhile, one of the few pieces explicitly to acknowledge the strains of our times is David Edwards’s Child’s Life Jacket, a poignant and thought-through bit of mimicry, in that tragedy is inherent in this item of safety equipment – it is made from lead.

Not that all art needs to address pressing contemporary themes, but the exhibition cries out for a bit more grit in the oyster. Such is the abundance of pictures that seem to have little to say, that on leaving the exhibition it is unclear whether the visitor has entered the RA shop or another gallery of pleasant enough inoffensiveness.

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
Royal Academy of Arts, London W1J; runs 18 June – 18 August 2024

[See also: Tate Britain’s revelatory exhibition of women artists]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation