Review: Summer Exhibition 2017, Royal Academy ‘Not Its Strongest Year’


It is, in truth, largely impossible to judge this annual institution as you would any other exhibition – there is always the familiar chaos of the hanging, there’s such a wide variety in theme and style that any overarching assessment is tricky, and the fluctuations in quality that can come from so many artists (over 1,100 this year), both household names and unknown, being mixed together makes it hard to unpick.

Many critics dislike this show, I know they do. I, for one, though am not included in that. I get great pleasure from seeing what many artists are wrestling with. I look forward to new ideas, I revel in the democracy, and – true – I do enjoy the Friday Lates (open to 10pm) where you can enjoy a glass of wine in the Courtyard (whilst, this year, glancing at Yinka Shonibare’s colourful Wind Sculpture) before taking in the galleries.

So, consider this more a series of observations, rather than a review.

This marks the Summer Exhibition’s 249th year. I’m trusting that the RA has a few surprises up its sleeve for the big one next year and, well, you sense that perhaps there might be too many eyes on 2018 rather than focusing on 2017, for this year’s show doesn’t have the energy that has marked the rejuvenation of this show in recent years.

Many of this year’s works lack relevance. Instead, you sense artists are keen to focus on what is commercial, what will sell. As a result, few are taking any risks. This is – dare I say it – a disappointingly safe collection of works. There’s a real lack of any kind of observation on the state of the world today, which is a surprise given current events. And there’s not many making a stake to shake things up or provoke.

There aren’t any new ideas here.

That’s not to say that the Hanging Committee hasn’t made progressive choices. Far from it. Indeed, the RA and Eileen Cooper, who coordinated this year’s show, have been at pains to point out that deliberate effort has been made to “extend the reach of the exhibition to include more works from artists across the world, as well as artists working in different media, exploring and celebrating the new energy of the next generation.” (RA press release.)

And there’s certainly a few pieces from the Hanging Committee’s fishing trip that catch the eye – Hassan Hajjaj’s Henna Bikers, which can be glimpsed through the arches on entering the show, is a case in point. These veiled Muslim women relaxing around their beloved mopeds are a popular subject for him and are part of a project he completed on these gang girls of Morocco and their bike culture. They’re certainly a badass collection of women – though they’ll be familiar to the VICE readers and the younger generation than, perhaps, traditional RA visitors. It was a popular subject on social media, you see, when it happened. Three years ago. An example of the RA playing catch up, rather than setting the pace.

And, this year, two galleries have been set aside for film, including works from Julie Born Schwartz and (Charles Wollaston Award Winner) Isaac Julien. Only these are not the most engaging films, or the most innovative in this genre. Which doesn’t really give these new voices and new ideas the best platform.

And, worse, in spite of all this talk of new artists and new ideas, pride of place across this Exhibition is given to old guns. And old guns with not much to say.

Walk into the first room, the Central Hall, and you’ve a bland photo from Marina Abramovic and (yet) another neon from Tracey Emin. I’m tired of those neons – and there’s more than a few in this show. They’ve been done to death.

Turn left into the big Gallery II and you’ve a big vivid pink Michael Craig-Martin and more than usual from Bill Jacklin, who was actively involved in the hanging of a few of the rooms. We know what these guys do – we’ve seen it for years and years. And, beyond, you’ve a very bland piece from Sean Scully.

Or take the opportunity to turn right instead, into the Lecture Room and beyond, and you’ve a whopping Anish Kapoor lump, titled Unborn, that is a blend of an aborted foetus and an Eton Mess, a ‘meh’ Gilbert and George comprised of slogans and ad extracts for sex workers, men with vans, and Asian egg donors, and a tired piece from Allen Jones of a naked woman.

And you know things are going awry when even the Anselm Kiefer seems to be dialled in. I mean, it’s the best piece of art here by some margin (obviously) but the man does more challenging work than this vast canvas comprised of dried flowers resting in warm hues of yellow.

And there seem to be works from Yinka Shonibare in every room. Great, but it’s familiar territory of covering renaissance sculptures with colourful African prints, and blending Western religious iconography with global cultural references. There is nothing new to see here.

Away from the big names, there are some interesting pieces from more unknown artists. But the exhibition is pretty thin on the ground in terms of subject matter. Abstract and conceptual art is everywhere. ‘Where are the portraits?’ my companion cried as I made her go around the Exhibition a second time so I could take more in. Indeed. Few tackling this, or landscapes for that matter, either. And it is frustrating to see pop culture references still being the likes of Amy Winehouse and hoodies. Hardly insightful.

I will be back for another view. Of course I will. Like I say, I enjoy so much about the show, and what surrounds it. But I also want more time to take in more of these works. However, I sense that I will return with slightly less enthusiasm than previous years, and with a far greater intent to really pull apart what’s on show to see if I can work out why so much and so many of the artists insist on circling the superficial.

Royal Academy of Arts, London, to August 20, 2017
Admission £14 (excl. Gift Aid). Concessions available.


All installation photos by me.
You can find more exhibition photos in my Facebook album.

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