Monday, 16 June 2008

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

It's always pleasing to get an invitation to the Summer Show at the Royal Academy of Arts and it’s good fun to go but’s not the sort of show that you want to pay a load of good money to see!

Why not? Well, it’s a jumble: a mish mash of different tastes, a rag bag of artists’ work, a mix of medias with a number of items of dubious quality. But, it’s for just this reason that many will tell you that this is why they like to go.

This year a number of people have curated a gallery with what they consider are interesting or arresting works, by amateur or well-known artists. They are artists, art historians or others with the reputation for artistic taste. Taste is so subjective though: the very first gallery celebrates the art of R.B.Kitaj, if celebrates is the right word. Fortunately, after that it could only get better.

In the Large Weston Room the walls were covered with the questionable, the mundane, the good and the very good. The gallery is a mixture of etching, aquatints, woodcuts, silk screens, lithographs and photographs, most of them affordable. Different styles and media seemed to be put together any old way but the room was packed with visitors who were finding it all rather interesting.

Next to it was the Small Weston Room, where oils and acrylics completely covered the walls, all cheek by jowl in any old order. Some works were very boring, others ok but then – what joy – a hidden pearl: a Bernard Dunstan, a Diana Armfield oil. Then a watercolour by Leslie Worth and my impression of the event was definitely on the up.

After a Pimms and a packet of crisps in the next gallery – very bright and very large canvases there – I was definitely feeling in a more mellow mood. But it wasn’t always easy to keep that way. Gallery VI was devoted to architecture – models, drawings, photographs – and was inspiring and interesting (and that wasn’t the booze talking) and the next gallery provided me with more to inspire and delight, some oils of landscapes by Donald Hamilton Fraser and Ivor Abrahams’ figures.

But gallery VIII was a little less calming: Tracey Emin was the curator and she was out to shock. One or two pieces did just that with nothing else to them they seemed a bit pointless but, surprisingly, a truly shock factor sculpture of pink hands and pink members – which looked nothing but a mess of pink parts – very cleverly produced two silhouettes of heads when projected on to the wall!

And in one of the next galleries I was really impressed by the postcode collages by David Mach – made of millions of slithers and cut-outs of postcards the effect is multi-layered in every sense of the word. Yes, they were art and they were stunning to boot. And there was wit: Margaret Calvert’s, ‘Woman at Work’, was one.

One reason the show is so popular with members of the public is that most of the works on display are for sale. Many of the more modestly priced pieces by well known artists who are Royal Academicians – mostly numbered prints – are covered with little red stickers on the very first morning. I did wonder why when I saw some of them: it may be that this is a buyer’s chance to do a little investing – in the hope the value will increase when the darling drops of the proverbial perch – or perhaps it’s the chance to own a piece of work by a well-know artist.

So it’s not a serious show no matter how the RA tries to convince us that their worthy curators have managed to give us something new and stimulating. It’s a circus of a show, a bit of a joke, a chance to see worthy works sitting next to our Billie’s painting of the garden. And we can all benefit from a less rarefied view of art sometimes: a little bit of fun never hurt anyone.

Lucy Ann White

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