Magazine article The Spectator

Real Merits

Magazine article The Spectator

Real Merits

Article excerpt

The Summer Exhibition

Royal Academy of Arts until 10 August

The season is with us again, and it's time to wander down to Burlington House for that great bazaar of contemporary and traditional art, the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. This is the 235th Summer Show and it contains well over 1,200 exhibits. It's still the largest and longest-running open exhibition in the world, though how 'open' is a moot point with non-RA artists. That continuity is impressive, but its size does help to account for the predictability of the critics' responses. How to do justice to such variety in a short review? Easier by far to denounce it than to try to assess its real merits. For real merits it always has, which this year consist of two dedicated galleries - one a memorial to the Spanish sculptor and Honorary RA Eduardo Chillida, the other showcasing Anthony Green's remarkable sculpture-cum-painting entitled 'Resurrection'.

The first things the visitor encounters can set the mood for the whole show. Galleries I and II are this year dominated by sculpture, but the overall effect is bitty rather than monumental. There are fine things here, however, such as the chased and polished nickel bronze surfaces of Charles Hadcock's maquettes, arching and desirable, and the disquieting partial humanity of Robert Clatworthy's bronze heads. And there are David Mach's sexy collages referring you back to his nude woman composed of metal coat hangers in the lobby outside. Gallery II is more emphatic, with a large polished wood wall piece by the newly-elected RA Nigel Hall holding a conversation with John Carter's exquisite geometries. This dialogue is backed up by three early sculptures by the late Lynn Chadwick, some typically flavoursome Tapies textures and four powerful dark drawings by Ann Christopher; and a flowing aluminium wall sculpture by Bryan Kneale, like a saraband of eels.

The large print room is always densely hung and difficult to assimilate quickly. This year the space is commanded by an extensive charred oak floor piece by David Nash. Among the works which stand out are the abstract elegances of Sandra Blow's etchings, the vivid topographies of Michael Heindorff, Colin Self's three-plate print of a mechanical Cyclops and Ian Welsh's photo-based inkjet print 'Near Tower Bridge', all subtle shadows and reflections. The Small Weston Room which leads out of the print room has once again been filled with small paintings (more than 200 of them have been hung by Ken Howard, who declares that 'size has nothing to do with quality') and will no doubt prove as popular as usual. I liked the gentle abstract landscapes of Sally McGill, Gordon House's paint pot and Danny Markey's urban views, but my favourite in this gallery has to be Robert Dukcs's oil 'Sprig of Leaves in a Water Glass'. For understated poetry as well as economy of means, it's hard to beat.

The main gallery is as usual hung with Academicians' work, the end wall being given over to a memorial to the colourful Chilean surrealist and Honorary RA Matta, who died earlier this year. Hung to the right are three beautiful small paintings by John Craxton, the finest being 'Cretan Cats' which is a marvellous design of interweaving kitties, chair and floor tiles. (A typically witty touch has the woven seat doubling as a fish skeleton.) A touch of European sensibility seems to pervade this room, and lift the heart of the exhibition right out of reach of the frequent complaint that the summer show is parochial. Three Kitaj drawings and an Allen Jones watercolour have just such a cosmopolitan gloss. …

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