Gristle and Giblets

Head down to Piccadilly and then along to the Royal Academy which is celebrating its 250th anniversary year by undergoing a bit of an architectural spring clean and tidy up.  I don’t think there have been any actual extensions or additions made to the basic structure of the mighty Burlington House building but various new walkways and cut-throughs have been created and some other odd exhibition spaces have been renovated, refreshed and newly opened up to the public gaze.  On the whole, the designers and builders seem to have done a pretty good job and, with everything newly painted, polished and dusted down, there’s an undoubted ambience of invigoration and optimism somewhat akin to the smile on the face of a favourite old uncle in receipt of his first prescription of little blue pick-me-up pills.

On a practical level, it now means that there’s quite a useful direct short cut from the Piccadilly piazza entrance through to Burlington Gardens and so on to the commercial galleries of Cork Street, New Bond Street and beyond.  And anyone taking advantage of this corridor route will be pleasantly distracted by the discovery of a couple of newly disinterred display spaces along the way.  While I’m not sure what the long-term plans are for these areas, or how frequently the mini-exhibitions will change, currently the displays are both interesting in-house productions that acknowledge the Academy’s important historical role in educating the nation’s artists both past and present.  So, various pedagogic treasures and trophies accumulated by the Academy during the course of its illustrious semi-demi-millennial historical journey, are displayed here in the so-called Vaults.  Included among the various plaster copies are some of those rather unpleasant ecorche sculptures revealing the muscles and other bits of gristle and giblets that are thankfully usually covered by our outer epidermal layers.  Rather more tasteful are the plaster copies of the disarmed Venus de Milo and an enormous, naked Hercules leaning perhaps just a tad too casually on the ancient baseball bat that he’s used to batter a Nemean Lion, Erymanthian Boar or some other ferocious beast of mythological proportions.  Of course, in the past, students were laboriously required to study and sketch these kinds of exemplary sculptural figures, both to hone their technical drafting skills and also to acquire an appreciation of the once universally accepted aesthetics of representation that was commonly agreed to have peaked in the classical era.

To see just how far the interests and expressions of artists have changed during the Modernist and Post-Modernist revolutions of the past century one need only walk on a few yards to arrive at the Weston Studio and the Honeymoon exhibition which showcases a small and rather ridiculously cramped selection of works from some of the current class of first year RA postgraduate students.  Gone forever are the gods and heroes of historical, mythological and religious narratives while all the other classical genres of portraiture, landscape and still life are deconstructed, shredded and reconstructed in what seems to be an increasingly desperate search for the kind of innovatory gimmick that will give an artist the kind of USP branding formula and social media presence that can be leveraged into some form of professional career.  And so, giving up on any attempt at differentiating qualities beyond those of simple memorability – which may well be the most important asset for an aspiring artist to cultivate today – prizes go to Clara Hastrup for her violently vibrating pot plant and Jenkin van Zyl for his pimped up sedan chair.

Having traversed the ground floor, a staircase leads up to the Collection Gallery which again takes a look back into the Academy’s historical associations by setting out a sample display of assorted works acquired as inspirational teaching aids, along with sketches and samplers from some of the more famous former old boys, and one old girl.  Most spectacular is a full size copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper apparently painted by some of the maestro’s own pupils after his original fresco started to deteriorate and fall apart not long after its completion.  As for works from the actual RA alumni, Sir Joshua Reynolds’ self-portrait is probably the most accomplished work here with the Gainsborough portraits, Turner and Constable landscapes and Angelica Kaufman allegory all a bit disappointingly second division stuff.

As for the other exhibition space at this southerly end of the Academy, this seems to have acquired a rather overlong appellation which, presumably, reflects the wish of the main financial sponsor to receive what she considers to be her proper and full nomenclatural entitlement.  Well, ‘If you’ve got it, baby, flaunt it’, as Zero Mostel famously advises during a scene in the Producers, although I think his comments are directed at the exhibitionist assets of some well-proportioned soubrette rather than the extensive monetary holdings available to the wife of some uber-rich financial investment manager.  No matter, the three rooms of the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries (one for each name) have all been given over to the ubiquitous Tacita Dean (whose work is also concurrently on show at the National  Gallery and National Portrait Gallery).  For this display, the artist has decided to revisit the landscape genre but not to echo Constable’s verdant green celebrations of bucolic British ruralism nor yet to mimic Turner’s misty yellow swathes and infusions of miasmic sun-drenched scenery.  No, Dean has determined to limit herself to the monochromatic possibilities of shading sweeps of white chalk onto an enormous wall-sized blackboard.  The resulting tracery of snow-capped mountain peaks is quite impressive although the effect is perhaps more due to the sheer, epic scale and size of the spectacle rather than the actual design or production of the scene.  The equally gigantic photographic image of a tree is similarly diverting for a brief moment but the force of attraction wears off quite quickly as eye becomes accustomed to the super-size scale.  Elsewhere in the displays is a glass case containing four-leaf clovers collected by the artist (the vast quantity of which perhaps explains why Dean has been so exceptionally feted in her artistic career) and Antigone, an hour-long film show.  The space was too crowded for me to get to see the movie and I can’t help thinking that the curatorial decision to install such a long-running piece in such a comparatively small exhibiting area was not very well thought out.  And while the exhibition as a whole is unquestionably presented in a stylish and professional manner, it strikes me as being all just a bit too cool and calculated in its overall design.

I suppose at this point I should also add that I’ve only listed above the parts of the Academy that are currently open to the public.  In a couple of weeks’ time, the Summer Show will be filling the ten rooms of the main gallery space plus the additional rooms in the Sackler Wing.  And then another large suite of rooms will be used to house The Great Spectacle, a show which aims to offer an illustrated history of this famous seasonal jamboree that is, apparently, the world’s longest-running annual display of contemporary art.

Finally, before exiting the new, happily revitalised Academy, duty requires that I note the presence of the Pace Gallery, a renowned commercial establishment that has been lodging in some of the spare rooms of Burlington House for the past few years though, presumably, when its lease expires the RA will make a final land grab and swallow up this area as well.  I’ve visited the Pace space fairly regularly over the past few blogging years and I think it’s fair to say that the exhibitions here are very varied in styles, presentation and quality.  I seem to recall having been bored quite a few times by some dreadfully dull displays of meaningless overblown Abstractionism and yawned at other less than minimally interesting examples of Minimalism.  But there was a very impressive collection of Art Brut collagist drawings by Jean Dubuffet recently and some Calder mobiles filled the space beautifully a couple of years ago.  So, what have they chosen to accompany the new remodeled Academy?  Sad to say, the honour has gone to Julian Schnabel, an artist of excessive self-confidence who delights in creating large collaged works that, on occasion, can sometimes impress by dint of their sheer uncompromising sense of majestic power.  Not on this occasion, however.  As far as I can tell, the suite of a dozen works consist of massively enlarged pages from a quaintly kitschy belle epoque illustrated calendar onto which the artist has simply scrawled a few black lines.  Self-indulgent, lazy, feeble.  And if you get distracted by a background whirring noise, well, that will be the sound of the hundreds of former Royal Academicians simultaneously turning in their respective graves and me joining in by grinding my molars.

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