Whatever the season, Summer, Autumn or Winter, this annual show could also be known as The Usual Suspects. This year, the RA appeared to raise its head above the Palladian roofline balustrades and parapets of Burlington House, but the same maths apply as they have in years gone by. Eighteen thousand works were received this year, still making it the largest open submission exhibition in the world, of which 1,170 were selected. Each Royal Academician and honorary Academician is allowed to show six works, and as there are around 150 of these esteemed folk, of which a score have submitted their maximum; that amounts to around 375 works, which, in turn, amounts to just under a third of the works on display. An RA after one’s name will not guarantee a sale, but the general public are a safe lot, as well as being canny, and will certainly be influenced by those two capital letters.
In years gone by, a print of Elizabeth Blackadder’s irises used to have a contagion of red dots, as did a pig or a chicken by other lady artists, whatever the fashionable animal was that year. In 2020, Dame Elizabeth has only two etchings, one of an orchid, the other of a languid cat. But fret not, there are RAs a-plenty to whet the appetite. Cornelia Parker has eschewed flattening silver-plated teapots under steam-rollers for making photogravure prints of pieces of glassware, although she has wheeled out her tired Seeing Red print of red dots again. Chris Orr has produced a very funny and wonderfully detailed lithograph of a chaotic street scene entitled Crisis? What crisis? as well as a lively hand-coloured engraving, Jaipur Junction. Rare to find such humour in the hallowed halls of Burlington House.
The first two galleries are curated by Isaac Julien and contain some of the best works in the show, including a montage of black and white stills from his film Who Killed Colin Roach?, Oscar Murillo’s powerful mixed media Manifestation, Frank Bowling’s seductive Watermelon Bight, El Anatsui’s deeply satisfying Castle in the Cloud, made from fragments of aluminium tacked together with tiny loops of copper wire, and Yinka Shonibare’s Air Kid (Girl), a fantasy sculpture of enormous dynamism and sense of freedom. David Mach, Peter Randall-Page, George Baselitz and Humphrey Ocean all have stark black and white images on show, while Ken Howard, Bill Jacklin and Norman Ackroyd are well within their comfort zones. Ron Arad’s submission in the final gallery is a car crash, literally, Oh Lord, won’t you buy me? referencing Janis Joplin’s Mercedes-Benz plea, but at £324,000, that is a bit steep for a wreck, so who would buy me? There are a few works that are either Not For Sale, or have an asterisk that denotes ‘refer to sales desk’, in the manner of a salesman’s snotty put-down, ‘if you have to ask the price, you patently can’t afford it.’ Frank Bowling’s large acrylic tops the list at £756,000, if you must ask.
Twin sisters Jane and Louise Wilson are a collective duo, elected as a single Academician and are the overall curators of the exhibition. Other RAs have been given galleries to fill, such as David Remfrey, Professors Stephen Farthing and Sonia Boyce, Eileen Cooper, past Keeper of the RA Schools, and Eva Jincna, in charge of the architectural gallery, one of the weakest in the show. There are two delightful window paintings; one by Anthony Eyton is a gloriously sunny, new leaf view of Brixton Road, Spring, and the other is Suffolk Field 1, an accomplished acrylic and oil painting by Lucy Marston, with the raindrops on the glass in focus, and the landscape through the window a blur. Masterful. While the Wilson sisters are two people on the one ticket, Bob and Roberta Smith are one person, Patrick Brill, who has produced four bold typographical statements in signwriters’ paint on board, with such legends as ‘THERE IS STILL ART, THERE IS STILL HOPE’ and ‘WHEN IS CUMMINGS GOING?’ There is an arresting mixed media work by Athena Anastasiou entitled Bringing the Past to New Horizons, involving oil painting and wool, with the yarn hanging down from the unfinished portrait.
The final gallery is like a prop house, thrown together by a mad person for a film that will never be made. Paul Scott has three Adams Palestine dessert plates from 1840, overprinted in blue glaze with scenes of devastation and destruction in Palestine today, called Cumbrian Blue(s) Palestine, Gaza 2014 (Tripych). Ai Weiwei, a fierce critic of the Chinese government, has not used the RA for political rhetoric but has made four large porcelain vases, with the various humanitarian subject matters being Ruins, Refugee Camps, War and Crossing of the Sea. The overall effect of this year’s show is one of lightness and digression, featuring well-hung works in airy rooms, which must have been a challenge to put together, with several curators only able to attend the hanging sessions via Zoom, notably Stephen Farthing, who was stuck in Jordan, and Isaac Julien in the US.
6 October 2020 – 3 January 2021