Having been the playground of prestigious artists, including the likes of Gainsborough and Reynolds, Turner and Constable, the Royal Academy's Summer exhibition should promise great things, and be a testament to the evolving thoughts and fears of a new generation of artists. This is due to the fact that it is the world’s largest open submission art show. It brings together art in all media – prints and paintings, film, photography, sculpture, architectural works and more – by leading artists, Royal Academicians, and household names, alongside new and emerging talent. This year, British painter Jock McFadyen RA takes the difficult-to-follow mantle from Grayson Perry, who curated the energetic and acclaimed 250th Summer Exhibition. Last year's show was itself a work within its own right; the energy and excitement of the new art market were tangible. This year, McFayden has drained the joy and interest from this vibrant tradition, turning it into a bloated corpse of an exhibition.
Over 1,500 works are on display, most for the first time. As you walk in, you see a mess of animal sculptures, trussed up together, in the middle of the room. On the two walls behind you is a multitude of animal paintings, seemingly with no theme or reason - other than the fact that they feature animals. On the opposite walls are two large paintings, featured alone simply because they are large. It feels as if McFayden has been unable to make successful curatorial choices, and has, instead, treated the pieces as if they were IKEA furniture hauled into the lounge by the deliveryman. The only saving grace of this room is the Banksy, showing a rat smashing open the lock on a closed UK border barrier. However, this work does not belong in this room: it is a smack of politics in a room that has been rendered otherwise meaningless, due to lazy curation. By assuming all of the pieces fit in with the aesthetic of '64 Zoo Lane', he has caged the Banksy in a zoo of mismatched pieces.. As I turn to go right, my way is blocked by Charles Avery’s “161 - UNTITLED (DUCULI)” a fantastic, giant bronze surrealist sculpture of dogs playing but conjoined by their necks. However, it is placed in a doorway, so the viewer cannot move around it with ease and appreciate the artistry of the piece: it is reduced to the status of a coat-hanger.
If you turn left, you enter Gallery III, which holds a vaguely nautical theme, but again is visually overwhelming from the sheer number of works that are being presented. As an artist, I would take this as a message to only create physically larger pieces, because these are the only ones a person can focus in on within this cacophony of visual noise. At the end of the hall is David Hepher’s “272 - HEY WAYNE ON THE MEATH ESTATE”, which is so large it becomes the only thing you see. Unfortunately, this means it detracts from the equally fascinating “303 - UNTITLED AM45” by Rebecca Salter. The overwhelming reaction to too many works with a weak theme is, as expressed so expertly by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian, “ like being locked for days in a garden centre.” The slightly dehydrated headache one gets from being visually saturated comes - and this is only in the second room.
As you turn left again you are presented with a microcosmic city of eco-friendly buildings but the room is so tightly packed there is scarcely enough room to see some of the most dynamic buildings. One’s glazed eyes pass over these striking sculptures and turns left again into Gallery I. This room shows the obvious Brexit fears that artists are feeling though hardy political statements like Jeremy Deller’s “We are all immigrant scum” - a mixed media textiles banner hanging from a flagpole in the roof. This is the first room that feels like it has a coherent theme. This is because it wasn't curated by McFayden, but by twins Jane and Louise Wilson. In this room, they manage to expertly explore identity, immigration, protest, and other linked themes. The central video work, “Miss DMZ” by the collective Young-hae Chang Heavy industries, acts as a fulcrum to place the other works around, creating a fascinating dialogue. Memorably the portraits by Eugene Palmer, and William Marsden, consider marginalised groups, third culture kids, and the duality of identity. These also sit alongside works by Hannah Starkey that examine the reaches of female identities, creating a unique dialogue.
Removing yourself from this oasis, you retrace your steps and turn right to enter Gallery IV where artists anxieties about global warming make the atmosphere tense with dread. Chunks of Antarctic tundra being swallowed by pylons and black bin bag birds dominate this room. It is a memorial to the planet which looks at destruction and disintegration in a wider context, with two remarkable ink drawings by Michael Sandle, encapsulating the devastation caused by humans and warfare. I'm thankful his work stood out despite the curation, it is a testament to his skill.
Upon entering Gallery VII, there is a change in curation, and it suddenly feels more focused. Curated by Anne Desmet, it scrutinizes the ideas surrounding “urban-focused sustainability”. It celebrates impactful works such as Claire Douglass’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights,Emily Allchurch’s monstrously illuminated Babel Britain (After Verhaecht) and Ade Adesina’s climate-change-induced tornado.
It is unfortunate that Gallery VIII follows this curatorial high point: the walls feel cluttered and sadly make Bob and Roberta Smith’s painting “My Son Changed My Art” feel lethargic, in comparison to how childlike and vibrant their work normally comes across. For me, the works that mitigated the clumsy curation were Barbra Walkers “Vanishing Point”, Cornelia Parker’s “Stolen Thunder (The Final)” , and Miriam Elia’s “We Go to the Gallery” series, specifically “There is nothing in the room because God is dead” and “The death of meaning”. Each bring an element of playfulness in an otherwise humourless room.
As you leave through the gift shop peddling postcards of the works that you inevitably missed, it is easy to think that British art is becoming mundane, but I think the works are victims of Jock McFadyen's curation; it is a shame for the works that would have shone in another show, and have, instead, been overshadowed or obscured. I hope next year reclaims the energy that I know is present in British art. Curation is about making choices, and this is a show where it feels like none have been made.