Magazine article The Spectator

Order within Chaos

Magazine article The Spectator

Order within Chaos

Article excerpt

Sexually explicit, hyper-real statues of women, lit from within by neon illumination, placed shamelessly on exhibition in a celebrated London institution. What on earth, one might wonder, will the Turner Prize nominees come up with next to shock the art-loving public? Except that these outrageous pieces of work are on show not at Tate Britain - nor even the Saatchi Gallery or the Serpentine. They are the centrepiece - in so far as it has a centrepiece - of the 234th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Mind you, polar opposites though they might initially seem, there is a certain amount of cross-over these days between the TP and the SE. This year, a number of past Turner Prize winners are exhibiting (Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Rachel Whiteread). And Gary Hume, short-listed a while ago, has been entrusted with a whole room of his own to select and arrange, of which more below.

Nonetheless, there remains a profound difference between the two - not so much in content as in form. The Turner Prize-- this year's short list was announced a couple of weeks ago - is a post-modern form of art event, dedicated to profile raising, spin, news management and ritualised controversy. The Summer Exhibition, on the other hand, is pre-modern - a unique survival from the distant past.

Once upon a time, all exhibitions were like this - a heterogeneous assortment of work, rank upon rank, rising to the ceiling. Now, as far as I know, only the Summer Exhibition remains. And, as we saw from the reconstruction of an 18th-century Royal Academy exhibition at Somerset House last year, in those days the whole affair attained some unity from the fact that the individual works were in some sort of stylistic accord.

But that hasn't been the case at the Royal Academy for decades. So each year, sensitive studies of landscape compete on the walls of Burlington House with splashy colour-field abstraction, post pop, hyperrealism, you name it, in bewildering visual anarchy.

Last year, the Senior Hanger - Peter Blake - through heroic effort succeeded in imposing coherence on this jumble. This time, with the sculptor Brian Kneale presiding - though there's a good deal of anarchy as usual - the Blakean principles have been followed. Consequently, there are at least a succession of islands of relative order within the chaos, the first of which is provided by Allen Jones.

In recent years it has become a convention that each Summer Exhibition should contain a one-room mini show by an Academician or guest. This time Jones occupies the Small Western Room which in years gone by was made over to a mass of highly saleable small pictures of cats, vases of flowers, discreet nudes and so forth (goodness knows what's happened to them). Jones's display, in contrast, is dominated by a trio of life-size three-dimensional figures who look as if they have escaped from a slightly surreal, art deco bondage magazine.

One figure has a refrigerator placed in her midriff, the other two function as living lights. These works - which recall similar pieces Jones made over 30 years ago - are at any rate a great deal stronger than the wishy-washy paintings he has been producing more recently (a couple of which are also on show). Like the work of the Chapman brothers, Jones's sculptures succeed in offending so many people simultaneously - in this case, feminists, the politically correct, the prudish and those with anything resembling conventional good taste - that they become quite interesting. …

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