RA Summer Exhibition | icon 027 | September 2005

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words Charles Holland

This venerable summer fixture comes round again with the usual mountain of nudes and cats.

For two months in the summer, the Royal Academy is full, rammed to the rafters, with contemporary paintings: some by famous artists, many by Royal Academicians, hundreds of others sent in by amateurs. The number on display is vast – there are 1333 works – and in some rooms no wall space is left visible. This is the Summer Exhibition, art’s equivalent of Wimbledon: very middle-class, very English and very popular.

What’s it like? Exhausting, mainly. After a while, the paintings of houses and hillsides and cats, and more cats, and coy nudes and impasto cityscapes and hazy Venetian canals meld into one vaguely hallucinatory experience that, coupled with the constant hum of Posh People’s Voices, causes a strangely genteel form of sensory overload. By the half-way point – room 4, lot number 666 – I was starting to suffer from burn-out. An afternoon in the Summer Exhibition feels like taking a tour of a thousand Islington front rooms via Cork Street while leafing through Modern Painters and a few copies of Country Life. It dawned on me, as I progressed, just how many artists there are in this country. I wonder if everyone is secretly off at the weekends, easel in hand, gouache in pocket, to the Lake District or the Fens, or sketching their husband looking pensive in the front room.

Anyway, there are lots of paintings called things like: Storm Passing, Gulls Flying or Seated Model From Behind, and some excruciating puns such as The Man Who Drew Too Much. Famous names include Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Gillian Ayres and the late Eduardo Paolozzi. There is a vaguely homoerotic painting of a sailor painted by a Holly Johnson. Could it be the Holly Johnson? Surely not. Old RA veteran Anthony Green, whom I remember from childhood trips to this exhibition, has his usual 117 pieces in and, I was greatly relieved to see, is still including saucy pics of his missus. If people aren’t out on the hillside they generally tend to be in the studio being vaguely salacious so, typically, David Mach contributes an enormous sculpture of a naked woman made entirely from Dominoes. And it’s called Dominatrix. No, really.

There is a smattering of more contemporary artists including Gavin Turk, Tracy Emin, and Mark Quinn. There are photos by Sam Taylor-Wood and Andreas Gursky. Michael Craig-Martin contributes a tricksy computer animation. I was wondering whether Julian Opie would pop up, and lo and behold, he did. There is also a special room devoted to Ed Ruscha, whose conceptual clarity and focus came as a startling shock in the context.

With some sense of relief I found the architecture room. Home turf I thought. Mind you, even the curators seem to have given up by this point, professing ignorance of the contents of the room and of architecture in general. Traditionally, this room gives architecture a bad name, with practices chucking in a couple of curling competition boards they had hanging around the office. There are also lots of antiseptic white models of urban plazas or Perspex office blocks and the odd little sketch of a house in the country. At least you are safe from pictures of cats in here.

The worst thing in the room has to be Michael Manser’s proposals for Heathrow Terminal 5, which look as horrible as Heathrow Terminal 5 could look. There are some nice drawings by the late Ralph Erskine that speak very much of their period. Other highlights include a model of Will Alsop’s “Chips” building, which has plastic fish in it, and some drawings by CJ Lim of a proposal for the 2012 Paris Olympic bid.
Overall, the Summer Exhibition leaves you reeling at its sheer extent, unable to make much sense of individual works. Like most classic English days out, it seems to exist partly as an excuse to drink tea and eat a lot of cake afterwards. I certainly needed to sit down. Possibly, at my own easel. Now, if I can just catch the quality of that passing Cumulo Nimbus … more black, MORE BLACK!


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