The Summer Exhibition at the RA

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal (detail), 2012 by Grayson Perry
The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal (detail), 2012 by Grayson Perry

There are well over a thousand paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures and architectural bric a brac in the RA’s annual Summer Exhibition.  And at least a thousand of them are so boring and uninteresting that they constitute a compelling reason to stay away. Depressingly, many of the least inspiring contributions are from leading Academicians whose works fill much of the space but contribute little enjoyment.
The great majority of the work in the exhibition is for sale, and much of it sells. Another critic has already commented on the proliferation of red dots and the almost unerring alignment between the number if red dots and the (low) price of the work, independent of quality. Clearly the desire to own ‘something’ from the Summer Exhibition is a powerful motivator.

Fortunately there are some outstanding pieces of work in the exhibition which justify a visit. Indeed one of the consequences of the dense masses of mediocrity is that the few strong works tend to shine even more brightly be comparison.

The strongest room by far is the room set aside to display Grayson Perry’s series ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, a series of epic tapestries based on the Rake’s Progress and documenting the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, internet entrepreneur. These have of course been exhibited before, and given more space to be enjoyed. But they are magnificent works of imagination and craft and well worth seeing.

Gran Tour in search of Soane (after Gandy) be Emily Allchurch
Grand Tour in search of Soane (after Gandy) be Emily Allchurch

Outside that room, I was deeply impressed by Emily Allchurch‘s piece, Grand Tour in search of Soane (after Gandy), a masterpiece of photographic construction based on the work of Soane. Allchurch positions herself as reinventing the work of Joseph Gandy in a new medium and, like Perry, delivers a tour de force of craft and imagination.

The Church of the Ascension (1655), Piyala, by Richard Davies
The Church of the Ascension (1655), Piyala, by Richard Davies

There were some other photographs (actually there quite a lot in the whole exhibition) which stood out including work by Liane Lang and Richard Davies (from his series on Russian wooden churches), though all of this could usefully have had more room to breathe.

So should you visit? Well I suppose it is a entertainment. And if you have not seen the Grayson Perry that is a worthwhile exhibition in its own right. And there are some outstanding individual pieces, a few of which I have mentioned. But watch out you don’t get bogged down in worthy mediocrity.

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