Entering the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition can feel like being slapped around the face with the wet kipper of contemporary art, not knowing which way to look, which works to scorn and which to worship. Jam-packed to the gunnels with pictures jostling for space on every wall and floor, it’s either a feast for the eyes or on assault on the senses, depending on your viewpoint. I still remember the first time I went, at the age of about 16 – I just didn’t “get it”. However there’s a decent argument to be made that this year is one of the best in decades, with Michael Craig-Martin RA’s confidently riotous colour scheme giving this augustly historic tradition some much needed freshness. But how to pick the highlights out of over 1100 works of art? Forget Emin, Opie and Perry; here are my top ten that may have slipped under the radar.
Jeff Piggot: Ebb of Time
A fascinating mixture of paint, collage, charcoal, ash and other found materials, this vertiginously long and thin painting is a vision of raw countryside: a deep sunset over ancient and perhaps crumbling stone buildings, the discarded found materials remind us of the fragility of pastoral life in the modern age, as traditions and environments are lost, and local histories are in danger of being forgotten.
Rob Taylor: The Golden Temple of Garbage – Elevation and Plan
Futuristic, dystopian, and yet not discordant, because of the deceptively beguiling rainbow palette used for the kites, which swarm like a chaotic flock of brightly winged birds in the elevation, and the blooms of waste material in the plan, this is an architecture student’s commentary on the six million tonnes of electronic waste exported from Europe to India every year, blotting the horizon with mounds of decaying computers, video players and mobile phones, as they are discarded for the latest technological toys. Taylor gloriously reimagines these toxic landfills as shrines and the people who work on them in a ritual of semi-religious recycling, extracting gold from circuit boards in temples of waste metal purification.
Karl Singporewala: Franklin’s Morals of Chess (Jade)
Some may find the inclusion of architectural models surprising, but what’s bizarrely appealing about the them is the way they re-awake our childhood imaginations and play-instinct – although these are just for looking, there’s an irresistible urge to get involved with your hands somehow, to set the toys in motion, the miniature towns and parks. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Singporewala’s chess set, for which he has exquisitely crafted London landmarks to scale as acrylic playing pieces. The title references philosopher Benjamin Franklin’s essay in which he compared chess to life, a game from which we should learn foresight, circumspection and caution. I like to read this as an open observation of the way the city of London, and its architects, are pawns in the game of developers and the ultra-rich, as new icons are erected with increasing rapidity, with little thought to their effect on the built environment.
Emma Stibbon RA: Radar Station (Iceland)
One of several works Stibbon has at the exhibition this year, I’ve picked it out for its boldly monochrome treatment of a wild polar landscape, the last outpost of man in one of the most remote environments on earth. She heightens the drama of the setting with the strong contrast between light and dark, centralised on a diagonal emphasis at which these two great forces meet, at which point rays of sunlight stream from one to the other, bestowing hope on a scene that might otherwise be forbiddingly dismal.
Stephen Chambers RA: My Shitty Sisters
A set of prints dominating one of the walls in the Academy, this tableau of figurative scenes offers an almost cartoonish but gritty violence and some much-needed black humour. The spiky forms of the sisters huddle together, as though to plot and torture in a manner reminiscent of Macbeth’s witches, accompanied by cats and wielding guns. Having recently seen Goya’s witches at the Courtauld, this work seemed to me to be a modern re-envisioning of those terrible creatures.
Rose Hilton: Red Studio
Having put her own career on hold for her egotistical artist Robert Hilton, at the age of 81 this artist’s brush is making up for lost time, and creating canvases of post-Impressionist-cum-Fauvist loveliness. This painting, with its glowing pinks, reds and oranges bringing a pervasive warmth to the viewer, hardly needs any further explanation.
Ade Adesina: The Questions
In the artists own words: “My work is a visual commentary around the ideas of ecology and our ever-changing world. I am fascinated by how the human footprint is affecting our planet. Our world is full of wonderful landscapes and I wish to highlight the continual damage caused through things such as deforestation, the politics of energy consumption, and endangered wild species.” It would appear that linocut is the ideal medium for this, as Adesina has created a post-apocalyptic landscape with clean lines, an intricacy of fine detail and the simple effectiveness of monochrome printing. Flying whales populate the darkening skies over global landmarks such as the Duomo in Florence, the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel tower, interspersed with monumental and ancient looking trees and craggy outcrops topped with satellite dishes. Such a dense tapestry of symbols holds endless fascination for the viewer who wants to decipher them.
Elizabeth Zeschin: Sadie and the Bird
This is by far and away the most beautiful photographic submission of the year, and is none the less so for its apparent simplicity. Echoing historical oil paintings of allegorical young women, this work provides a peaceful meditation upon the transience of youth and life, and is an oasis of calm in the hectic galleries.
Kenneth Draper RA: Light in Pursuit of Shadows; Night Waves; November; Overcast; Winter Sky
Coming upon these extraordinary looking works on a table in the sculpture room, one feels as though they are having an alien encounter. Twisted tendrils curling over glass balls or matted fabric, bulbous lumps of mass which look almost fleshy, and other forms borrowed from the natural world, it’s like walking into a dark damp wood full of rotting mushrooms, decaying wood and sodden leaves, and coming across a witch’s hovel full of mysterious trinkets and exotic potion ingredients: crystal balls, scaly animal tales, cobwebs….it’s truly the stuff of nightmares.
Bill Jacklin: Into the Park II
This is one of the more straightforward works in the exhibition: an impressionistic oil painting of a park scene. I’ve chosen it for the sheer joy I felt when I first saw it – it induced such strong memories of seeing exactly that kind of dappled sunlight and feeling it’s warmth on my eyelids, walking down a very similar avenue in the park next to my childhood home, it’s a perfect evocation of a sunny day. It may not be the most exciting work on show, but for me this personal reaction is what art’s all about.
This is of course just a minuscule selection of what’s in the exhibition, and to be honest I could easily have done a “top 20” if I thought that anyone would bother reading. That’s what ideal about this show: in such a vast array, there’s bound to be something for everyone. I advise you get down there this weekend before it ends. If not, there’s always next year.
The Summer Exhibition is on at the Royal Academy until Sunday 16th August 2015.