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Aug 2012 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

The Royal Academy’s (RA) Summer Exhibition (to 12 August 2012), now entering its 244th year, is all about surprise. Inevitably, the quality is uneven as nearly 1,500 exhibits vie for attention and are sometimes so densely hung that they morph into a sea of colour and shapes. RA members’ works hang beside those of unknown artists - the egalitarian spirit has thankfully returned to the Royal Academy after a few years of pandering to celebrities.

The show opens in vibrant colours in the Wohl Central Hall - a homage to Matisse’s The Red Studio. Here William Bowyer’s Hammersmith Bridge comes to life, while Eileen Cooper’s Duet shows a girl with flying hair giving her foot to her surprised boyfriend. One or two works offer Olympic themes.

There are sadly few portraits but Nadia Hebson’s haunting painting of a dark-haired girl recalls Lucian Freud and John Wragg’s witty character poised on a chair against an orange and fuschia background, Waiting to Know, is titillating.

The exhibition does tongue-in-cheek very well, even if the joke’s on us. Few can define art these days and real talent may pass unnoticed if it isn’t crazy enough. Take Tracy Emin’s absurd Upset scrawled on an ugly board and going for a cool £165,000! As she is now a professor, Emin’s engraving of a cute bird gets celebrity status, attracting a frieze of red dots at a price of £275 each. Even though most punters could have drawn it too.

Some ideas are graphic, others are wild. Olu Shobowale has made a chair out of chicken bones. Michael Coombs’s Dyslexia is a jumble of books. There are painted clothes pegs by Annie Morris and numbered piano keys by Stephen Farthing. Lucy Glendinning’s Feather Child is cringe-making but imaginative. David Mach’s Spike is a leopard made from coat-hangers and his Michaelangelo-style David piece from unlit matchstick heads.

C. J. Lim’s sculpture has turned London into a Victorian sponge cake. The London experience is further borne out in Adam Dant’s lithograph of the city’s trendy Hoxton Square. But crossing the pond, Jock McFadyen’s Buffalo Grill has a colourful simplicity. The eponymous American eating-house is painted red with white windows and appears to be drowning in an apple green sea and sky, dreamily pleasing to the eye. Mick Moon’s mysterious Redwoods, tall sparse trees with the moon reflected in the water, also has a sense of peace and tranquillity. Bernard Dunstan’s Rehearsal gives a fluid sense of an orchestra, emphasising the harpist. The muted colours seem busy with sound.

Bill Jacklin’s Battery Park Under the Tree has a colourful, smudgy feel, recalling Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières. And James Fisher’s Migraine Weather conveys the blinding yellow of a headache.

Anselm Kiefer’s Samson has political edge with a sign indicating Gaza below a thickly impasto mountainous region. The work is bisected by a long rifle marked ‘Samson’. More optimistic is Alaleh Alamir’s upward tapering cypress tree.

Often the best works are the exquisite miniatures in the Small Weston Room. Sadly, this year they are replaced by a film of a cello making hypnotic sounds.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:In memory of Yugoslav victims of the Holocaust
next article:From living memory to cultural memory (review)