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Rats, whippet, King Kong and long noses

John Evans on the RA’s 251st open exhibition

13 June, 2019 — By John Evans

Chris Orr RA, The Parliament of the Long Noses. Photo: Strike-a-light

IT’S the open exhibition of the year, this time co-ordinated by painter Jock McFadyen, and featuring some 1,581 artworks from an entry of no fewer than 16,250. It’s the Royal Academy summer exhibition, of course, and as always with much to inspire and impress; and much to the contrary.

McFadyen says at the outset: “I don’t really care what anyone thinks of the hang.” Curating such a menagerie of works is, he says, “a really big juggling act” which he also likens to making an artwork in its gestation.

In fact, in the first of the traditional rooms, the Wohl Central Hall, there is a menagerie. Beasts feature, from guillemot to whippet, a polar bear, and an elephant in the room, to carp, swan, budgie, even King Kong, and a colobus. Banksy offers a rat as part of his comment piece with a reclaimed Heathrow arch and a “keep-out” message for would-be EU arrivals.

And Royal Academician Humphrey Ocean offers a sparrow, black-headed gull, dunnock and moorhen.

There are also two giant prints by Hannah Collins, The Road to Mvezo – Nelson Mandela’s Birthplace and, second, Nelson Mandela’s Teenage Home, National Monument. These are intriguing but only of any interest because of the titles, context, and subject matter, not because of how they look. So there is a key to the entire selection, good and bad.

These works may be about climate change, too, but as with the rest of the exhibition, almost any message can be drawn from pieces; and that goes for some of the architectural exhibits as well.

Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

Banksy, KEEP OU, customs arch salvaged from Heathrow airport, roller shutter and spray paint. Photo: © David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts

McFadyen also embraces photography and there are even C-prints for sale by the legendary film-maker and writer Wim Wenders, of Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire fame, and with these can be seen * “refer to sales desk”, that is, price on application.

The mix is, as is customary, both of academicians and established artists (a couple of Tracey Emin bronze sculptures at £70,000 apiece) or a Bill Jacklin oil, Road at Night with Stars I for £58,000; or even an Untitled bronze by honorary RA Mimmo Paladino for in excess of a third of a million pounds!

Yet there are bargains, too, on offer in galleries which vary in quality depending on which academicians have selected the pieces.

Not all will appeal but it should be remembered that the exhibition proceeds help fund the three-year postgraduate RA Schools programme for which students are charged no fees. That’s unique.

A highlight this year is the imposing Thomas Houseago’s installation in the Annenberg Courtyard in front of the RA’s Burlington House, that they say “respond” to the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds that’s been there since 1931.

The works of Holloway’s Melissa Scott-Miller and Kentish Town’s Hilary Barnes can be seen.

But notwithstanding McFadyen’s colourful choices, perhaps the work that best sums up the current mood is that by Chris Orr RA , whose Parliament of the Long Noses will no doubt stand the test of time.

Summer Exhibition 2019, is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, until August 12, £18, concessions available.


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