Summer Exhibitions at the RA are often organised around a single unifying idea – ‘From Life’, say, or ‘Man Made’ – although most years you wonder why they bother, for all the difference it makes to the range (or quality) of submissions. The theme this year, though, ‘Reclaiming Magic’, is apt, because for once the works on show really do look like they’ve been chosen with the aim of transporting the eye and creating a sense of wonder. British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare and his organising committee have also taken the opportunity to showcase ethnic minority talent, and if the result feels at times a bit like ‘The Yinka Show’, that’s no bad thing, in my humble opinion.
The buzzwords this year are ‘colour’, ‘texture’, ‘global’ and, above all, ‘eclectic’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much rag rug, beadwork, silk thread, calico or yarn on the Royal Academy walls – or, indeed, any wall – before. As for eclecticism, Shonibare sets the tone with his own ‘Unintended Sculpture’, which cleverly (and tellingly) combines two masterpieces of fifteenth-century representational sculpture: Donatello’s David for the body, surmounted by one of those highly naturalistic heads from the West African Kingdom of Ife. Even better, indeed the stand-out piece in the show as far as I’m concerned, is ‘I woke up from a dream that gave me wings’ by New York-based Mexican artist Raúl de Nieves. ‘Mixed media’ doesn’t begin describe the phantasmagoria that de Nieves has conjured up, which is more like an eruption than an assemblage. It’s Frida Kahlo on acid.
Shonibare has supplemented the usual ‘Hon RA’ fare (Anselm Kiefer, Ai Weiwei, Julian Schnabel) with invited black artists of international standing, including Betye Saar, Ellen Gallagher (both USA), Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Romuauld Hazoumè (Bénin). There’s also an interesting tribute to the self-taught painter Bill Traylor (1854-1949), who was born into slavery and only took up art when he was in his eighties, but who is now a cult figure of American ‘outsider’ art. And, as ever, there were personal discoveries galore to be made. Someone whose work in particular caught my eye is the Californian painter Mary Lovelace O’Neal, who specialises in fairly large-scale abstraction. Googling her, I wasn’t at all surprised to discover, in the context of this show, that she’s also a civil rights, and now BLM, veteran.
Another source of fun this time round is spotting RAs whose work suits the show’s vibe, and those that, er… frankly don’t. Among the former I’d include Eileen Cooper, Rose Wylie, Barbara Rae, Stephen Farthing and Timothy Hyman. I liked Farthing’s small dot-dash acrylics and I loved Wylie’s giant bronze pineapple (I’d no idea she sculpted as well as painted, in fact). For the rest, let’s just say that if perceptual art’s your thing, this is probably one to skip: pastiche Piero and contre-jour views of Venice are pretty thin on the ground this year. Not that ‘Senior Academician’ necessarily means fuddy-duddy: take Anthony Eyton, for example, still going strong at 98, whose increasingly frenetic brand of Expressionism brightens up one or two dark corners here.
All in all, this ‘Summer’ Exhibition is a considerable breath of fresh air. Overt Covid/lockdown references are mercifully few. I forgive Grayson Perry his contribution, the title of which made me laugh: ‘Chris Whitty’s Cat’!
Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 22 September 2021 — 2 January 2022