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(c) Donald Sultan, Courtesy of Galerie Andres Thalmann and Waqas Wajahat, New York

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2017

21 June 2017 Will Rathbone

Now in its 248th year, the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is an institution. Huge figures in the art world rub shoulders with aspiring amateurs and practising artists alike. It’s a carousel of creativity, with the Summer Exhibition Committee whittling over 12,500 digital submissions down to a little over 1,000 works. These are displayed across 13 rooms – with sculpture, painting, installation, video and textile art all sharing the space.

The summer has well and truly arrived. The feelings it brings – of gay abandon, of untapped potential and, particularly in these modern times, of inclusivity and diversity – are perfectly manifested in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. It is, however, as much an exercise in immaculate curation as it is a celebration of culture, with the sheer wealth of works on offer never feeling overcrowded or out of place.
 
It begins with Yinka Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture VI in the RA courtyard – a brightly coloured, patterned fibreglass sculpture that undulates and curves like a kite in the breeze. Its playful nature encapsulates the exhibition itself, and is cheekily matched by a sash adorning the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds – first president of the Royal Academy. 


© Eileen Cooper. Photography: Justin Piperger

 
In the Wohl Central Hall, Jim Dine’s Poet Singing, First Version instantly screams at you. The harsh, thick black lines outline a face that shouts for attention – helped by a gaudy acrylic background. Elsewhere a delightful sculpture, Very Nice Ride by Paola Pivi, is nothing more than a slowly rotating bicycle wheel with eighteen peacock feathers pinned into it. It turns; you stare. It’s the simple things sometimes. Sir Michael Craig-Martin, co-ordinator of 2015’s Summer Exhibition, presents Untitled (Yellow Laptop Fragment) – one of a series of eye-catching everyday objects, painted in bold acrylic colours, which crop up throughout the exhibition.
 
Within each room different themes and groupings become apparent. Room III finds cities and viewpoints colliding. Chris Orr’s busy panoramic watercolours of Brooklyn’s East River and Córdoba’s rooftops; Ken Howard’s technical oil paintings of Venice and Rome; Frederick Cuming’s more abstract Hastings Beach, Snow and Bonfire and Anthony Eyton’s colourful, rhythmic scene from Varanasi, India. Room VIII, in contrast, is more disturbing. Ieuan Morris’ bleak photograph Altar, the quivering porcupine-quilled, hooded youth of Lee Wagstaff’s The Art of Being Right and the grotesque, money-stuffed dolls of Tim Shaw all set the tone for an unnerving room.


Image courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj
 
There are moments throughout that disturb. Anish Kapoor’s Unborn is a powerful silicone and fibreglass sculpture that takes up a large part of The Lecture Room’s wall. It is a hunk of flesh and organ: raw and bloody, amorphous and gristly. It’s unsettling, and it stays with you – as with the silent, pregnant army of tree-stags in Cathy de Monchaux’s digital collage Wall of Stags. Liane Lang’s mixed media image Blow Out, of a huddled figure cowering amongst a violent explosion of paint in a church, is reminiscent of an earlier acrylic painting, Despair, by Gaia Evans – where a figure is similarly located under a blank shower amidst a swirling mass of chaos.
 
On the whole though, the exhibition is light in tone. Bill Nighy’s watercolour face peeks out at you in Una Stubbs’ Our Bill, Jonathan Trayte’s Kabocha – a pink and black painted bronze sculpture of a butternut squash – and The Beauty Contest, a print by Dick Jewell where sculptures pose in front of a crowd of phones, are all examples of the playfulness of the overall exhibition.
 
Special mention also needs to go to the incredible Large Weston Room, where Farshid Moussavi curates architectural drawings and designs. The scale, detail and beauty of the work found in the room amazes. Room X, dedicated to Turner Prize-nominated filmmaker Isaac Julien is powerful and captivating. WESTERN UNION: Small Boats mixes images of African migrants and Sicilian families who are both swimming, but for very different reasons. It leaves a big impression. 


© Donald Sultan, Courtesy of Galerie Andres Thalmann and Waqas Wajahat, New York

 
With so many artworks to view, it’s impossible to see everything. You could spend a whole day, maybe more, looking at the wealth of art on display, and it is certainly an exhibition that benefits repeat visits – lest you miss Holding Water, Paul Benham’s photograph of a hand doing exactly that, or Ann Carrington’s opulent Wing Two, a sculpture of a galleon made from fake and real pearls and jewellery.
 
With so much to take in, it’s an astounding feat to ensure the art compliments and never competes. The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is an annual highlight, and nearly a quarter-millennium old, for good reason. It’s bloody fantastic.
 
The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition runs until August 20. Tickets are £15.50.
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