Art Review: Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts ‘Not This Year’


You know the drill, I know the drill so let’s get right down to it.

The RA Summer Exhibition. National institution etc etc and the biggest open entry art exhibition in the world and, frankly, the only place where you could end up seeing a Kiefer masterpiece on the same wall as Mrs Miggins’s still life and Joe Blogg’s en plein air attempt to capture his local cricket team in full swing.

I mean, I’m being facetious (a little) but such is the democracy of this show that the lure is that anyone can enter – though there is the hope that the selection panel will make a good enough job of sifting through the thousands (and thousands) of applicants to ensure that the final selection is exciting, fresh, innovative, challenging, relevant…and the rest.

And that’s where we hit the first hurdle in this year’s Summer Exhibition (the 251st) for something went wrong somewhere in the selection process for the quality in this year’s show is, well… honestly, it’s really poor.

And that genuinely pains me to say this as I am a huge fan of the Summer Exhibition. I love its democracy, its chaotic energy, and its crazy hanging but all that energy needs, at its foundation, interesting artworks to capture attention otherwise visitors just wander through packed galleries, their eyes barely skimming the surface of the pieces on show.

And that’s exactly what happens.

The entrance hosts a Banksy that’s as subtle as a sledgehammer (Brexit, obviously) whilst, in the centre of the gallery, a ghastly mishmash of ropey animal-themed sculptures – including bears, gulls, elephants and a technicolour cobra – perch atop thick white blocks. It genuinely feels like pieces pulled out the backroom of a bric-a-brac shop.

So, you move on in the hope that the next gallery is better. Which it is because one of the works from Anselm Kiefer is there. Though, admittedly, it is much the same as many of the great man’s works. Indeed, none of the big names or Academicians bring anything new to the table in this show; you can guess their work a mile off as their stuff is so distinctive.

So, when the greats let you down, that’s a second hurdle but if it’s not Jock McFadyen’s fault that he can’t rely on them, and perhaps his team’s selection was the best from a bad lot from the wider public (though I am sceptical of this given how strong the shows in the previous few years have been), the third hurdle is a surprise and one that very much has to be laid at his feet.

Empty walls.

How can there possibly be so much empty space on the gallery walls??! I mean, the Summer Exhibition is known for its smothered walls, for its packed-out rooms but here? Nope. The amount of vacant wall space is startling. That just ain’t the Summer Exhibition.

Of course, I say all this yet my mother came away with two prints under her arms of humpback whales. She was more disappointed in the show than I was as visiting the RA each summer is an annual tradition for her – and treat. But it just goes to show that even in a poor year, there’s still something for everyone at the Summer Exhibition…

Runs to 12 August. Admission £16.

Image credits: David Parry

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