Sunday, June 07, 2009

Summer Bling at the Royal Academy

The buzz at the RA Summer Exhibition was more than usually raucous, especially in the crush of the smaller galleries where hundreds of paintings crowd the walls in haphazard layers. In part it's the reaction to a surprisingly upbeat collection.

The catalogue (£3.50) is entertaining, for perusing the evocative titles afterwards and gasping at prices, as well as adding to the meaning of obscure abstract works. Although notices outline themes and highlights for each room, the works themselves are just numbered. It's best to go with someone so you can join in the calling out 'Ooh, that would just go nicely with my curtains', or 'What? £3,600 for folded newspapers?.'

It's too big for one visit. The penultimate gallery had lots of small items on shelves, which I didn't see, and I'm looking forward, next time, to the film room.

The sculptures are excellent. Damien Hurst's magnificent St Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain is easily the best thing in the show - a larger-than-life silver nude. He poses with all his muscles exposed and his skin folded over an outstretched arm like a crumpled raincoat, except that it dangles empty feet and toes. He holds a pair of shears in his other hand, and smaller surgical instruments are scattered round his feet.

I liked an intriguing hollow cube of soldered numbers and letters - called Wittgenstein's Dilemma. The gilded Moon Gold Hare 2008 by Barry Flanagan, an exhilarating piece of bling, drew admiring comments.

There were few overtly political comment pieces. Marcus Harvey's diptych Male and Female wearing Masks (Tony and Maggie) had a pair of figures painted to appear as if behind frosted glass, the iconic cheesey grin and yellow hair making them instantly recognisable.

Of the paintings I liked the abstracts best, my favourite being Flux - hundreds of small pieces of paper in different blues arranged in swirls. It was big, which made the £10,000 price- tage seem a bit more reasonable. Tracey Emin's jokey monkey in a space suit looks like an illustration for a children's book, very reasonably priced in a limited edition of 300 but you'll have to be quick because there were plenty of orange stickers on the glass. There's another of hers at £90,000 but I missed it.

The northern grittiness of a rent-collector against a backdrop of yards and four grim housewives, called Shadows Thick as Felt hinted at a return to harsher times, as did the sculpted black bear about to pounce, but the tone was generally cheerful.

Ken Howard's picture of the inside of his studio with a model foregrounded a gleaming silver coffee set. £35,000 you'd have to pay for that - Self-portrait with Fantin Latour.

Among the superbly atmospheric paintings the impressionistic Dora,Snow in Kensington Gardens by KenHoward was untypically serious. Explicitly sexual or gloomy subjects were hard to spot in a celebratory collection full of 'witty' pictures. The giant stainless steel spoons in the courtyard add to the overall razzle-dazzle. It couldn't have been the Pimm's effect, because I didn't have any, (what, at those prices?) although its festive chunks of oranges and limes suited the mood of the show.

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