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Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2024

  • June 19, 2024
  • 5 min read
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2024

It is a glimpse of the obvious to say Ann Christopher is one of our most eminent sculptors. Not only is she a Royal Academician, making her a member of an elite elected by her fellow artists, but she is the co-ordinator of the latest, the 256th, Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

Now aged 76, her commissions adorn the British Museum, the Bristol Art Gallery, Pallant House in Chichester, the Holburne Museum in Bath and the Corcoran Collection in Washington DC, to mention just a few. She takes her inspiration from anything from rugged coastlines to skyscrapers to plants.

However, Christopher is also a contradiction. She is famous for her large, bold, courageous abstract sculptures of simple forms, created with a bewildering mixture of materials and complexity; and she is also disarmingly self-effacing, so that although she was happy to lead the panel, which plans the hang of 1,600-odd works of art, she didn’t want to hang her own gallery. “I had to insist” said the RA’s curator, Sinita Berry. In the end Christopher has hung two of the great galleries that set the marque for the 2024 pick. So while her presence in terms of works of art in the show may be muted – two tiny table sculptures and two small drawings – her personality is all over this year’s offering.

And while some of the rooms in this enormous show are crammed in the traditional manner, there is a sense of her theme there in the way the work is hung, with the help of her committee of academicians Hurvin Anderson, Assemble (the architectural collective), Anne Desmet, Hughie O’Donoghue, Cornelia Parker and Veronica Ryan.

Ann Christopher’s roomy space

Her theme is making space, “whether giving space or taking space” she says. “To make space can mean openness – making space for something or someone, also making space between things. It is my belief that the spaces in between are as important as whatever those spaces separate.” Even the architecture section appears to be super-space conscious – for what is architecture is of not the enclosing and the liberating of space?

Even before you enter the building, there’s a weird interpretation of space loss in Nicola Turner’s extraordinary piece. Usually the statue of Joshua Reynolds, the founding president of the RA, presides in majestic isolation in the centre of the Annenberg Courtyard, but now he is hemmed in and apparently about to be engulfed by her monstrous textile tentacles (stuffed with found matter such as horsehair and wool), an echo in reverse of his 18th century painting The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents.

Nicola Turner’s courtyard installation

The first gallery is not Christopher’s but Hughie O’Donoghue’s, in which he has made a statement about traditional disciplines with painterly pictures such as his own Channel, an intricately described tanker isolated in an eternal sea of canvas; or Diana Copperwhite’s Neural, an abstract exposition of light and colour threatened from the bottom left corner by a creeping dark brown. And another evocation of marine space in the late Mick Moon’s Outward Bound, a lost fishing boat.

Room III is traditionally the co-ordinator’s own statement, the one Christopher had to be persuaded to address. Dominating the scene, and the piece that Christopher might have shaped her design of the room around, is an enormous Anselm Kiefer collage in black and white, and made from woodcuts and shellac in which a man appears be having his abdomen eviscerated by a salamander. It takes up a lot of space of its own, and nudges the neighbouring pieces aside so that it almost bosses the wall.

Also startling and startlingly large is David Mach’s uncharacteristic collage, The Destruction of Jericho, in which we watch Armageddon raging outside the cosy and – safe? – interior if a family car, complete with teddy bear and coke can.

However, there is another innovation that takes the imagination away from shock tactics of Kiefer and Mach. Traditionally this is the gallery that has no standing art on its floor, awkward for a sculptor to contemplate – the reason is a simple logistical one in that it’s the room where tables of wine and canapes are laid out for private views. Christopher‘s answer to what to do with the sculpture is simply to hang it on the wall, as with Nigel Horn’s Finally Beginning, abutting wood circles high on the wall in a lot of its own space. Or in the case of Cornelia Parker’s Psychobarn (Flotsam), lean it gently against the wall. Above the doorway is a serpentine flow of geometric shapes sculpted in folded, perforated paper, by Conrad Shawcross, another uncharacteristic presentation by a popular academician.

Cornelia Parker’s crowded room

The Large Weston Room, where prints are usually on display, Cornelia Parker’s approach to her friend’s “Making Space” theme is to use as much of it up as she can, with almost nudging the next as they crowd on the walls, and on the flat stands in the centre of the room in another contrast to Christopher’s main room. Parker’s own choice, also out of character, is a small archival pigment print called Green (With Envy). It’s also a contrast with the room she hung here ten years ago, entirely in black and white.

The RA’s Summer Exhibition is not always the most inspiring of annual artistic events, but this one has a smile on its face, which occasionally allows itself to become a belly laugh. It is a major earner for the newly refurbished Academy Schools, to which all the proceeds go, with each of the private entrants coughing up £40 a work, whether it’s selected or not, and 30% of any sales going to the academy. It’s a great and often exhausting tradition, which adorns the summer, and this one is a joyous edition.

18 June-18 August

About Author

Simon Tait

Simon Tait, former arts correspondent of The Times, writer on arts and heritage for national newspapers since 1985, president of the Critics’ Circle 2012-14, author of a biography of the painter Philip Sutton RA, editor Arts Industry Magazine.

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