The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The usual hotchpotch at the RA Summer Exhibition and some awful Americana from Charles Saatchi

Michael Prodger

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, which runs until 16 August, is such an established perennial that it is easy to forget just what an extraordinary event it is. Staged annually since 1769, it is the world’s longest-running open submission art exhibition and this year about 10,000 applicants have been winnowed down to 1,200. This great bazaar, where Sunday painters hang alongside Royal Academicians, is inevitably overwhelming, often infuriating but never less than entertaining. 

This year’s exhibition is no different. The slight changes — a film room for the first time and a revamped architecture room — do little to damp down the visual cacophony. The exhibition has a nominal theme, “making space”, but it is pretty meaningless. The only way to approach this vast hotchpotch is to meander around it and see what catches the eye.

Two of the most striking pieces are from honorary RAs: Anselm Kiefer’s daunting Tryptique, a forest of tree trunks, some painted and some real saplings; and Cy Twombly’s The Rose (III), one of his huge, dripping flower paintings. Kiefer’s textured work is an updated version of one of Gustav Klimt’s close-cropped beech woods but with an overlay of menace, while Twombly uses the liquidity of paint as a literal and effective metaphor for that most hackneyed of ideas, the transience of a rose in bloom.

The RAs themselves — there are 120 of them and each is allowed to exhibit up to six works — rather pale beside their guests. The likes of Anthony Gormley, Michael Craig-Martin and John Bellany all play safe with pieces that stretch neither artist nor viewer, while Tracey Emin exhibits a couple of typically maladroit works. Basil Beattie, however, shows more imagination. His No Known Way and The Sight of Night are pared down, near-abstract suites of landscape in flat tones of brown that show the receding lines of roads, railway tracks and horizon as if he were painting the empty American West as seen in a rear-view mirror or through the last window of a train. Images of great simplicity, they also invite viewers to make up accompanying stories.

I liked, too, Marcus Harvey’s Gloria Mundi, a deflated leather football in bronze, and David Remfry’s Pictures from Storyville, a nude girl elegantly drawn from the feet end with clusters of tattoos picked out in watercolour. If I had to pick just one work, however, it would be an untitled portrait by the non-RA Nadia Hebson. The subject, a slim woman with a weather-reddened, mournful face, is dressed in a sheer blouse and sits in a hilly landscape. There is the smack of Northern Romanticism about the picture, a mixture of rawness and otherworldliness. Among all the amorphous wafts of colour or calligraphically-precise depictions on the Academy’s walls this modest oil on copper portrait has a startling clarity of vision. 

The scattergun approach has also long been Charles Saatchi’s modus operandi: buy in bulk, on a whim and from largely unrecognised artists and sometimes the results will amount to something. When in 2006 he exhibited part of his hoard of contemporary American art at the old Museum of Mankind site behind the Royal Academy, USA Today was chiefly memorable for two things: the extent of his acquisitions and their qualitative paucity. Now, after shows of modern Chinese and Middle Eastern art, Saatchi has revisited America for the latest exhibition at his grand new gallery in Chelsea. Unfortunately Abstract America: New Painting and Sculpture (until 13 September) is proof that the apple never falls too far from the tree. Although most of the work has been made in the last three years, the quality has not improved. 

Many of the pieces are at best unremarkable and at worst execrable (but without having the grace to be interestingly bad). Poor, too, is the title: this is not an exhibition of abstract art, the human body is everywhere. Nor is the title some clever play on words; the organisers present the 32 artists in the show explicitly but unconvincingly as digital-age heirs to the Abstract Expressionists — Pollock, Rothko, Klein et al. The misnomer is just as irritating as many of the works on show. 

Too many of the works are lazy and uninspiring and say nothing about modern America. There is a welter of the bored pattern-making, distorted mannequins and resin-drip sculptures that are the stock in trade of second-rate artists. The most overt political comment in the exhibition is Kirsten Stoltmann’s Spray Bush, a photograph of a woman spray-painting her pubic hair red. The picture is described as embodying the “ethos of vaginal power and politics” where the artist, “by placing minge up front”, transforms her model’s sex “into both an audacious beacon and a hazard sign”. It is adolescent stuff all round.

There are some redeeming artists however. Peter Coffin’s Untitled (Spiral Staircase) is a huge, self-repeating circular construction, the size of an ocean liner’s propeller, in which a spiral staircase circles around itself endlessly. Part Escher and part DNA, it is an entertaining visual puzzle that also comments on the repetitions inherent in daily life. Amy Sillman’s semi-abstract, organic paintings are full of fragments of half-seen things and are notable less for their borrowings from Philip Guston than for the beauty of their colours. Best of the bunch though is Kristin Baker, with a broader range of subjects than the Futurist-inspired motor racing pictures seen in USA Today. She applies jewel-bright, Perspex colours with a palette knife that overlap like a collage of torn paper. Here there are landscapes, mood pieces and a version of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, all marked by her technical assurance and eye for composition. 

If Saatchi wants to found a Yank Art movement to rival his Brit Art creation, he could do worse than start with Baker and cast his net less wide and with more discrimination.

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