Exploring this year’s Summer Exhibition with coordinator Jock McFadyen RA

Published 12 June 2019

Feeling overwhelmed by all the art to see in this year’s Summer Exhibition? Here’s some guidance from poet and art critic Kelly Grovier, who met with the show’s coordinator to discuss its themes before selecting his own standout works to see.

  • It strikes me, the moment he says it, as the perfect metaphor for the tameless spirit of contemporary art: “I’m making a menagerie in the Central Hall of the Royal Academy.”

    I’m talking with the Scottish painter Jock McFadyen RA, the overall co-ordinator of this year’s Summer Exhibition, about his vision for the 251st installment of the sprawling spectacle that celebrates the preoccupations and proficiencies of today’s artists. Paying homage to mankind’s ancient instinct to draw animals on the walls of caves, McFadyen’s menagerie showcases images and sculptures of creatures, both real and imaginary, by artists as diverse in temperament and technique as Charles Avery, painter Humphrey Ocean RA, photographers Tom Hunter and Karen Knorr, and sculptor Kenny Hunter.

    The ambition is motivated by an eco-spirit that echoes across the show. A room curated by architect Spencer de Grey RA, for example, is invigorated by concerns about sustainability – how architects balance creativity and experimentation with respect for achieving a zero-sum impact on the world’s vulnerable environment. Another member of the ten-strong Selection Committee, Scottish painter and printmaker Barbara Rae RA, had her thinking about the exhibition stimulated by her recent expeditions to the endangered icescapes of the Arctic. As well as an annual extravaganza of imagination, there is a clear sense that this is a serious show staged by serious artists.

    “My starting point”, McFadyen tells me of the broader theme that he hopes will unite into a harmonious whole the dozen rooms and around 1,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, videos, photographs and architectural maquettes selected and invited for display in this year’s Summer Exhibition, “is art that describes the world today”. That’s not to say, he is quick to clarify, that literal or figurative descriptiveness is essential for selection to the show. “I’m as interested in the way Mondrian captures the energy of New York in Broadway Boogie Woogie”, he continues, “as I am in any landscape or portrait”. McFadyen’s aim is to prioritise work that resonates with the energy of the real world and to celebrate in particular, he says, “artists who look out of their windows, rather than ones who close the curtains”.

    Such attentiveness to the contours of existence has always been key to McFadyen’s work, which is the subject of a new RA monograph published this summer. What strikes you first about the painting of his own that he has chosen to show in this year’s Summer Exhibition, Poor Mother, is the sheer delight it takes in magicking from the alchemy of oil and linen the uncanny feeling of being alive in the universe.

    There’s an almost mystical heat that vibrates from the oversized orange orb that pulses in the upper right of this canvas. But is that a sun or a moon? And that interloping posse of four-legged beasts, fresh from the menagerie of the artist’s mind and silhouetted by the silvery haze of an indeterminate sky – are they staring back at us or towards the ramshackle structures, hoisted on stilts, that teeter in the shallows? Are they ibex? Or antelope? Someone must know. But this isn’t really a painting, or indeed an exhibition, about the particularities of a specific here-and-now, so much as it is about what it means to be more generally – about the strangeness of the soul’s strandedness in the world as only the power and poignancy of art can capture it.

  • Photo: © Lucid Plane.

  • Art critic Kelly Grovier's top picks from the Summer Exhibition 2019

    • Thomas Houseago, 2 - SUN & MOON MASK

      Thomas Houseago, 2 - SUN & MOON MASK, 2019.


      1. Thomas Houseago’s playful sculptures

      Before visitors even reach the front door of the Royal Academy, a parade of unsettling, larger-than-life figures, fossicked as if from the tar of British artist Thomas Houseago’s unconscious, will accost them in the Annenberg Courtyard. Occupying a privileged position in the blueprint of the show – a space occupied last year by Anish Kapoor RA – and standing alongside Alfred Drury’s iconic sculpture of Joshua Reynolds PRA, Houseago’s bronze, plaster and wood statues will be an arresting blend of classical heft and postmodern playfulness. His five 15-foot-tall faces recently drew crowds at New York’s Rockefeller Center; his works for the RA will attract passersby from Piccadilly to the piazza in front of the Academy. Strange hybrid forms, melding historic and contemporary references, Houseago’s sculptures will acclimatise visitors to the range of creative vision on show inside. The artist’s tendency to leave his surfaces unfinished should also set an enticing tone of rawness and intensity.

      Image: sculptures by Thomas Houseago installed at the Annenberg Courtyard, showing Sun & Moon Mask in the foreground. Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts / David Parry. Artwork: Courtesy the Artist, Gagosian and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.

    • 2. Trevor Sutton’s pure geometry

      Trevor Sutton’s oil-on-board meditation from his Atelier series is exemplary of the exhibition’s allegiance to works that emerge from a mindful engagement with the physical world without being slavishly tethered to it. Committed to non-figurative work since art school in the 1960s, Sutton creates philosophical paintings and prints plotted along the axes of mathematical precision and a tranquility of texture and tone. Jock McFadyen, as the Summer Exhibition’s co-ordinator, was drawn to the rigorous purity with which Sutton translates the essence of the Irish landscape into the serenity of an irregular rectilinear grid of emptiness and colour, stillness and dynamism. By choosing a title that conjures the mingled energy and composure of an artist’s work environment (Sutton is known for the ordered calm of his own studio), the painter blurs the boundaries between the realms in which a work of art is constructed and the one in which it was initially conceived – collapsing the two into an ideal atelier of the active mind.

      Photo: © Lucid Plane.

      Trevor Sutton, 360 - ATELIER

      Trevor Sutton, 360 - ATELIER, 2019.

      oil on board. 91 x 198 x 6 cm.

    • Emma Stibbon RA, 913 - CALDERA OVERLOOK

      Emma Stibbon RA, 913 - CALDERA OVERLOOK, 2019.

      four-part woodcut on japanese paper. 214 x 372 cm.

      3. Emma Stibbon’s monumental woodcut print

      When a volcano collapses, the resulting crater, triggered by the sudden siphoning off of incandescent magma from below the structure, is called a caldera (meaning “cooking pot”). After coming across the otherworldly glow emanating from such a geological implosion in Hawai’i’s Volcanoes National Park, its primeval light shuddering through the mist of a rainforest, Emma Stibbon RA had the inspiration for what would become her largest work to date: a nearly four-metre-wide, four-part woodcut on Japanese paper, entitled Caldera Overlook (2017), which is shown in one of the rooms devoted to printmaking. The subtle gradations in warmth and tone that pulse behind a dense thicket of silhouetted trees echo the lyrical resplendence of works by Hokusai and Hiroshige – masters of Bokashi, a Japanese printmaking technique that emphasises the diaphanous shading of intense colour.

      Image: courtesy of Emma Stibbon and Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

    • 4. Charles Avery’s grotesque sculpture

      Endlessly pulling against itself, all muscle and no mind, Untitled (Duculi) is a gruesome double-bodied (yet headless) canine creature. It is now transported from the imaginary island that Scottish artist Charles Avery has been constructing for the past two decades to the menagerie of the Summer Exhibition’s octagonal Wohl Central Hall. The terrifying taffy tug of the bronze beast’s neck is so taut in its senseless straining that the work throbs with untameable tension, as if it could snap in two at any second. As an allegory for the pain and pointlessness of mindless flailing, the sculpture feels archetypal in its nightmarish power. Whether the work is interpreted as a symbol of the grotesque ways that mankind has disfigured the natural world, an elaborate illustration of a philosophical problem concerning body and consciousness, or a huge hunk of dark humour, depends perhaps more on the mind of the viewer than the intentions of the artist who made it.

      Image: courtesy of SPACER, Ramsgate and Charles Avery Studio.

      Charles Avery, 161 - UNTITLED (DUCULI)

      Charles Avery, 161 - UNTITLED (DUCULI), 2019.




      pigment print on cotton paper. 244 x 350 x 1 cm.

      5. Hannah Collins’s haunting photograph

      A rickety bookcase leans against the roughly scrubbed walls of an abandoned hut. A petrol bottle is shoved in sideways amid the few volumes that have collapsed on the shelves, left dishevelled either by recent use or lengthy neglect. Who can say? All that’s evident is that this is a place whose now poignant dereliction was preceded by the pulse of unpretentious being. This large-scale pigment print (Nelson Mandela’s Teenage Home, National Monument), more than three metres wide, is part of a series that chronicles British photographer Hannah Collins’ visit to Mandela’s childhood home in Mvezo, South Africa. Intended to be read in the manner of a traditional history painting, this haunting image relies for its effect on a tension between its culturally evocative title and the dreary desolation it depicts.

    • 6. Grimshaw Architects’s sustainable pavilion

      Grimshaw Architects’s Sustainability Pavilion for Dubai Expo 2020 is indicative of the innovation on display in the Academy’s architectural room curated by Spencer de Grey RA, which this year has an emphasis on sustainable architecture. The pavilion must function almost miraculously in the punishing heat of the Persian Gulf. A scale-model in De Grey’s room shows how the building’s aesthetic is defined by a futuristic copse of sophisticated canopies whose photovoltaic roofs track the sun’s position. As the sun sets, their trunks draw moisture from the atmosphere, collecting water for the pavilion to use during the next day. The team of architects and engineers has here endeavoured to harness nature’s survival secrets, taking inspiration from both the Namibian fog beetle, which collects water in even the most arid environments by harvesting dew on its shell, and the moisture-sucking leaves of the Dragon Blood Tree from the archipelago off Yemen.


      Sir Nicholas Grimshaw PPRA, 529 - TERRA WORLD EXPO 2020 SUSTAINABILITY PAVILION, 2019.

      timber and plastic.

    • Cornelia Parker RA, 1493 - POISON AND ANTIDOTE DRAWING

      Cornelia Parker RA, 1493 - POISON AND ANTIDOTE DRAWING, 2019.

      rattlesnake venom and black ink, anti-venom and white ink. 60 x 61 x 1 cm.

      7. Cornelia Parker’s fatal ink blots

      “Art is dangerous”, the jazz composer Duke Ellington is famously said to have said; “when it ceases to be dangerous you don’t want it”. Chemically speaking, Poison and Antidote Drawing, a mesmerising Rorschach blot by Cornelia Parker RA, will continue to be dangerous for some time. Her symmetrical smear is a mix of black ink and rattlesnake venom – a serum that retains its toxicity for years. Renowned for work that involves physical risk in its making (in an early installation she had a garden shed packed with explosives and blown up by the British Army), Parker is fascinated by the equilibrium created by the confrontation of opposing forces. To counterbalance the violence of lacing her black blotch with lethal secretions, Parker has accented the dark stain with contrasting streaks of white ink which she has spiked with anti-venom.

      Image: courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

    • 8. Dorothy Cross’s luminescent prints

      There’s an eerie resilience to Irish artist Dorothy Cross’s radiograph-like images of jellyfish that goes beyond the fact that they glow green when the lights are turned off as the Summer Exhibition closes for the day. The luminescent printing responsible for the nocturnal shimmer of these sea creatures highlights their unique real-world adaptability to dramatic changes in their environment, and particularly to the planet’s warming waters in which they are thriving. The mirroring of the jellyfish in the work, as if some immaterial dimension of its being were peeling away, invests the image with a layer of endless replication. The haunting gloam of the jellyfish recalls an earlier installation that won the artist critical acclaim two decades ago. In 1998, Cross coated an abandoned light ship with luminescent paint and floated the vessel off Dublin’s Dún Laoghaire harbour, turning the midnight marina into a mystical port.

      Image: courtesy of Stoney Road Press.

      Dorothy Cross, 870 - MEDUSAE II

      Dorothy Cross, 870 - MEDUSAE II, 2019.

      luminescent print. 38 x 60 cm.

    • John Davies, 961 - MY GHOSTS

      John Davies, 961 - MY GHOSTS, 2019.

      mixed media, figures, backcloth and props.

      9. John Davies’s unsettling sculptures

      So engrossing are the faces, frozen physiques and mournful dignity of the 20 or so figures assembled into the tight, melancholic congregation of John Davies’s sculptural installation My Ghosts that one could easily miss the scatter of smaller clues at their feet that unsettle the scene. Sequestered surreally by a puny white picket fence, and encumbered by dozens of empty wine bottles, a diminutive house and a blank picture frame, the sombre flock seems to have swollen in physical size and emotional magnitude like shapes of a nightmare triggered by profound loss or guilt.

      Preoccupied since the 1980s by the manner in which memory and the elapse of life can sculpt the human face and form, John Davies has built a reputation choreographing ambiguous dramas performed by existential players cast from his own life. On display in a room curated by the figurative painter Tim Hyman RA, the curious collision of seemingly incongruous narratives in My Ghosts creates an aesthetic friction that is almost too much to bear in its near indecipherability. How are we to reconcile the sadness of the inscrutable family at the centre of the larger group, who seem to be conveying the naked body of a dead child, with the spare symbolism of a stop-motion orbit of a planet and swoop of an eagle above and behind them? And who, or what, are we to imagine is approaching from the left, so stealthy in its silent slouch that only the ears of the two dogs, cocked its way, can hear it?

    • Wim Wenders Hon RA, 1574 - ARMENIAN ALPHABET, ARMENIA

      Wim Wenders Hon RA, 1574 - ARMENIAN ALPHABET, ARMENIA, 2019.

      c-print. 178 x 372 cm.

      10. Wim Wenders’s evocative photographs

      Hoisted onto a jumble of huge rocks, their rusted steel surfaces growing more and more distressed by the second under the heat of a south Eurasian sky, the ancient letters of the Armenian alphabet rise like an alien copse of metallic cacti. This powerful picturesque monument, erected in 2005 by the Armenian government to commemorate the enduring legacy of the early medieval Armenian theologian and linguist, Saint Mesrop Mashtots – who invented the system of 36 signs (later expanded to 39) in c.405 CE – caught the imagination of German filmmaker and photographer Wim Wenders Hon RA when travelling through the South Caucasus region in 2008.

      Moved by the experience, Wenders found himself reflecting on the power of these elastic symbols to elevate the profile of a people and an otherwise detached landscape. Save for the emergence of these letters and their ability to assemble and reassemble themselves into profound articulations that can vibrate across the world, Mashtots’ homeland might be significantly poorer in its cultural capital. The sun-soaked ambience and desolate romanticism of this work – which features in a display of Wenders’s photographs in the RA’s McAulay Gallery – recall the tempo and tone of his affecting images of the American West, an enduring series of soulscapes that began when the artist scouted locations for his 1984 film Paris, Texas.

      Image: courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation and Blain|Southern.

    • James Turrell Hon RA, 723 - MORS-SOMNUS (07), MEDIUM DIAMOND GLASS

      James Turrell Hon RA, 723 - MORS-SOMNUS (07), MEDIUM DIAMOND GLASS, 2019.

      LED light, etched glass and shallow space. 137 x 137 cm.

      11. James Turrell’s portal of pure light

      From a diamond aperture in the gallery wall pulses a vibration of something softer and purer than the everyday word ‘light’ conveys. The shape from which this ethereal luminosity emanates, and the feeling of being transported to a place that is at once of this world and beyond it, echoes the quiet orchestration of Mondrian’s tribute to jazz-age New York, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) – that masterpiece of modern art that Jock McFadyen regards as a prototype for an abstract work that nevertheless fits the show’s theme: “art that describes the world”. Best known for his experimentations with how observers of his work perceive light, colour and the materiality of the world they inhabit, James Turrell’s work is the perfect portal for escaping the hubbub of the exhibition yet remaining in the thick of it.

      Image: © James Turrell, courtesy Pace Gallery.

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