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Summer Exhibition 2006: Royal Academy

Feature by James Haddrell

ENTERING the forecourt of the Royal Academy this summer, visitors are to be welcomed not by the traditional life-size sculpture of Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Academy, but rather by Virgin Mother, a 34-foot bronze sculpture of a partially-flayed pregnant woman behind which Reynolds is hidden.

The arresting work, the first seen in this year’s Summer Exhibition, is one submission by YBA poster-boy Damien Hirst. Recalling his monumental bronze Hymn – the giant reproduction of a medical model allegedly bought unseen by Charles Saatchi for £1 million – this new work is infused less with the postmodern playfulness of Hymn, and more with a sense of the artistic heritage of the Royal Academy.

The traditional colouring of a bronze sculpture, hidden by the brightly painted plastic effect of Hymn, is here retained, and the representation of a partially flayed but conscious figure recalls the anatomical drawings of the Renaissance. Moving round to the unflayed side of the figure it becomes clear that she, with her elfin young face, is modelled on Degas’ famous sculpture of a dancer, itself on permanent show at the Academy.

Hirst is not the only so-called Young British Artist featured in the exhibition – many of the exhibitors from the 1997 Sensation exhibition are reunited here – but if there is one lasting reaction to their works in the exhibition it is the sense of a moment passed.

Located right at the end of the exhibition, after more than 1,000 works by academicians and amateurs alike, the final room brings together works by Marcus Harvey, painter of the infamous Myra Hindley portrait, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and the Chapman brothers, but Harvey’s painting of a toilet roll seen through a frosted window, Emin’s watercolour and Lucas’ cigarette covered garden gnome have left behind the arresting shock tactics associated with the group and look more like undergraduate examination pieces.

Whether these artists are growing passive, or whether the curators of the Summer Exhibition have pedestrian tastes is impossible for us to know, but as a closing statement it makes for a disappointing room.

One of the strongest rooms, by contrast, is the memorial gallery to the recently deceased Patrick Caulfield. Hailed as an originator of Pop Art in England, Caulfield’s work has a uniquely pure visual quality.

His interiors are represented with a simplified, graphic precision and a narrow palette, but behind the precision Caulfield often undermines his own style with playful touches.

A midnight blue room seen through double doors is dominated by a bright yellow lampshade, a bold focal point for the composition, but looking closer it becomes clear that the lamp cannot possibly have a stand and must therefore be a work of imagination; in another work, a diagrammatic painting in reds and burgundies of a deserted bar, a photo-realist glass of wine seems to hover in space; in a third monochromatic interior, the artex texture used to highlight one of the walls extends to cover the chair that stands in front of it.

As a result, it’s difficult to step away from many of Caulfield’s paintings – having been drawn in by the attractive visual simplicity the unexpected twists challenge you to understand the work.

However, the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is not designed as a showcase for established artists, but as a celebration of contemporary artists in general.

Nearly 10,000 works were submitted for consideration this year, with well over half of the 1,300 on show coming from non-academicians.

In the prints room, a pair of attractive woodcuts of fish, sent for consideration by Julian Meredith – a beekeeper from North Yorkshire – have been given pride of place above the doors.

A work by a recent art graduate, a combination of delicate prints on acrylic, stacked on top of each other and illuminated by fluorescent light, creates a revolutionary sculptural print, or printed sculpture, an illuminated figure as ethereal as Hirst’s opening work is monumental.

In another room, a pair of landscape paintings by George Rowlett use more oil paint than the rest of the exhibits in the room combined, creating a vibrant, physical impression reminiscent of several works by last year’s robbed Turner Prize nominee, Gillian Carnegie.

Perhaps the most important thing about the Summer Exhibition is the fact that the vast majority of the works on show are for sale; that exhibition goers of any background can, for a couple of hours, engage in the idea of owning contemporary art.

Of course, many visitors do more than just think about it and do take home new works of art, but having replaced dry art-historical captions with price tags we are all asked the question – is it worth it? – and it’s a question we are all equipped to answer.

The debate about quality in art is wrestled from the curators, from the intellectual writers of art-history, and is placed in the hands of the shopper. Did I buy anything? No. But the point is I had the chance, and that experience made me feel equal to the works on show, not just a passive worshipper but an active participant in the world of art. And on second thoughts, George Rowlett’s landscapes – I think I’ve got just the place for them…

Picture caption: The Late Patrick Caulfield CBE RA, Happy Hour, 1996

Summer Exhibition
Until August 20, 2006
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD
Tel: 020 7300 8000; www.royalacademy.org.uk
Open daily 10am-6pm; Friday 10am-10pm
Admission: £7; various concessions from £2