The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2020

Guest review by Sarah Mulvey

Featured: Nijdeka Akunyili Crosby, Blend In-Stand Out, Mixed Media, 243 x 314cm

From July this year social life for gallery-goers returned almost to normal as many museums and galleries opened their doors to visitors. So, we re-inhabited the streets and met friends indoors, our smart phones tracking our movements around the city and allowing us to  record our pit stops in galleries, restaurants and cafes. As a city wanderer and exhibition aficionado it was a joy for me to walk around the city with the prospect of a destination to motivate my roaming.

After a summer devoid of the usual events that take place during the English Season, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, now renamed the Winter exhibition, returned for a short run from the beginning of October until the second lockdown began. So, this autumn a few of my journeys ended for me in a visit to the Summer Exhibition, curated this year by Jane and Louise Wilson. The Wilson sisters are well-known for their love of ruins, demonstrated in their videos, films and photographs. So, it is perhaps fitting that they were involved in the RA exhibition, this two hundred and fifty-two year old institution; an enduring relic of the past. These rebels of the 90s, who embraced the abject and the abandoned, grew up and became Royal Academicians.

Every year art critics decry the irrelevance of the Summer Exhibition, with its antiquated and seemingly chaotic display of discordant works of art. It lacks the coherence of contemporary exhibitions which seek to educate or reveal hitherto hidden agendas, its bazaar like display jarring with the minimalist curatorial fashions of the day. It has always welcomed submissions from unknown artists as well as those that are established, including Royal Academicians. And even though the invited curators try to impose a thematic order on the chosen works ultimately only a loose corralling can constrain the plural voices of an artistic free-for-all.

Gallery 1, showing work selected by Isaac Julian

One criticism of the show this year is that the work does not respond to the immediate concerns of the day. At least, the first two galleries are promising. They give generous breathing space to work by Black academicians: Sonia BoyceFrank Bowling and Yinka Shonibare, and other established Black artists. The work in these galleries was selected by Isaac Julian, who has submitted his own work: Lessons of the Hour, London 1983 – Who Killed Colin Roach? whose work reminds us, through a montage of photos, that Black people’s lack of faith and credibility in police justice is not just a recent phenomenon.

However, once you enter the main gallery, it is clear that it is business as usual. The dizzying market-place-like display has largely been unchanged since the Summer Exhibition’s inception in 1769. The works piled high up the walls jostle with each other, their meanings contradicted by the works that surround them. Many of the artists seemingly work in isolation, unaffected by the concerns of contemporary artists or of current social and political discourses. In recent years, the number of paintings on the walls has been reduced, but an innocuous painting of an untroubled landscape competes for attention with a derivative abstract canvas in the dressing up box of the Summer Exhibition. To be honest much of the work in the exhibition is bad art and perhaps we should admit that it is an irrelevance that has had its day.

On the other hand, a few works in the exhibition stood out for me. George Shaw’s small paintings of a path through trees are both tranquil and disquieting. Tracy Emin’s strident brush strokes in The Ship, based on Turner’s painting of a shipwreck, denote a wild disturbance and yet the painting has a strong underpinning structure which makes it a compelling presence. Peter Randell Page’s dotted and tangled maquettes and ink hieroglyphs communicate mysterious messages in a visual Morse code. Barbara Rae’s landscapes are dark and brooding and hint at a melancholic disquiet in the environment. And, of course, Anselm Kiefer’s vast apocalyptic canvas takes you away from the comfortable surrounds of the gallery into a brutally sensual world where scythes are lined up in a menacing assault against a backdrop of straw, wood, metal and congealed paint. That’s the thing about the Summer Exhibition, you can always find something that resonates with your sensibilities.

Perhaps it is the oddness of a lot of the art on view and the unruliness of the display at the RA summer exhibition that secures its charms, an antidote to the controlled presentation of contemporary art exhibitions where carefully curated works from an artist’s oeuvre are selected to persuade us to reconsider our views about it. At the RA there are no explanatory plates leading us in the right way to think about the artworks. You can wander around the galleries not knowing who has made a particular artwork because authorship is contained within the gallery guide which you have to buy or in the room guides (which this year were not available due to Covid restrictions) A rather fun game to play at the exhibition is the connoisseur game. Ditch the guide and try to distinguish the work of the established artists from the unknowns from the style of their work. There are often many surprises.

Or, perhaps it could be argued that the ordinariness of some of the work displayed could act as a bulwark against the strangeness of the times. Many of the works conjure up an imagined cultural certainty about the history of British art. In studios across the country there are amateurs working in oil paints on canvas recording an idyllic version of the British landscape, rural and urban, or domestic interior. Then there are the countless colourful abstracts which pass for an avant garde long since become conventional. Perhaps this year the therapeutic ASMR qualities of the somnolent art on view at the RA is what we need to escape the reality of the crises of economic slump, environmental degradation, species extinction and pandemic pandemonium. What a shame that the garden party vibe was absent with no bars in the middle of the gallery rooms selling over-priced Pimms to supplement the escapism.

The Royal Academy Summer/Winter Exhibition will reopen on 3 December after a month of lockdown. It is set to close 3 January 2021.

Sarah Mulvey is an art history graduate and has worked in education for over twenty five years, teaching art and photography. She has also written on art and fashion. Her passion is visiting museums, galleries and exhibitions. When not working she tries to find time to draw and paint and to take photos on her strolls in diverse London boroughs.

Image credits: Sarah Mulvey

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