The thing to remember about the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London is that it’s a selling show, perhaps the largest in the world, certainly the oldest.
So if you like the look of the big bronze hare by the late Barry Flanagan that prances in the courtyard with a tambourine, it can be yours for 940,000 pounds ($1.4 million). Prefer something for a slenderer wallet? How about a Gary Hume silk-screen print at 1,469 pounds?
This year’s edition is the 242nd Summer Exhibition since the first took place in 1769. It’s the same, but different, as it invariably is. The actual paintings and sculptures are new, and most of the names are familiar because all 80 members of the Royal Academy have the right to have works included if they wish (because it’s a good show to sell in, they generally do wish).
The exhibition looks better than it used to, because for the past decade or so it has been given more of a curatorial spin. The chief co-coordinator in 2010 is the painter Stephen Chambers, who has done such an effective job that several rooms, especially toward the beginning, look completely coherent. Only occasionally do you get the feeling that the person in charge was thinking, “Where the hell can I put this?”
In RA Summer Exhibition terms, that’s quite an achievement. For most of its history the show has looked like what it is: a marketplace in which the goods frantically compete for attention, or -- as David Hockney once put it -- a jumble sale. One of the factors that has helped Chambers is that a number of Academicians can be grouped around this year’s theme: “raw.”
There’s a strong contingent of what you might call funky abstract painters, who came of artistic age in the aftermath of Pollock and Rothko. John Hoyland, Frank Bowling, and Gillian Ayres are all in that category, and all prominent and looking good, particularly Ayres who passed 80 this year and has a series of ebullient new pictures in Gallery III (35,250 pounds to 70,500 pounds).
After decades of pure abstraction, Ayres has turned a bit representational -- at least items such as palm trees crop up on these new canvases. Thus her abstraction blends into the other main subsection of “raw,” which is loose and messy representational painting.
A good example is Georg Baselitz’s contribution: a large picture of a dog, upside down, with a lot of blue paint dripping over it from above. It’s more impressive than that description might suggest, in fact powerful. The price is unlisted, though available on demand.
The other distinguished German honorary RA Anselm Kiefer contributes an epic picture, caked with plenty of clotted pigment. David Hockney’s portrait “Maurice Payne, March 2010” is more sharply drawn, still brushed with enough brio to fit into the raw mood and to sing off the wall, which it does.
In the more definitely figurative department, a trio of buxomly chunky life drawings from Anthony Caro, doyen of heavy-metal abstract sculpture, is a surprise, and a good one (5,875 pounds to 7,050 pounds).
Among the sculptures, the laurels go to Yinka Shonibare’s “Crash Willy” in the Central Hall. It’s turning into Shonibare’s summer: This work is more forceful than his ship in a bottle recently unveiled on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.
A smash-up involving a vintage car and a headless dummy wearing his trademark tropical fabric, it seems hard to understand until you notice the license plate, which reads “FTSE.” Pretty to look at, this touches a raw nerve.
The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy of Arts in London through Aug. 22. The show is sponsored by Insight Investment Management Ltd. Information: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)