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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

Summer Exhibition 2023: The Royal Academy

★★★★

Exhibition Review: The Royal Academy, 13 June - 22 August 2023. Tickets from £22. Concessions Available. Book tickets here. #RASummer

[Disclosure: I attended the press day on 5 June for this exhibition for free, for the purposes of this review.]

In the blink of an eye, the Royal Academy’s iconic Summer Exhibition has come around again. For those not familiar, the RA’s Summer Exhibition is the cornerstone of the UK’s summer art season, and the world’s largest open submission contemporary art show.

Partial view of Gallery IX curated by Eileen Cooper.

The process of curating this exhibition is a Herculean endeavour – with an average of 15,000 works of art submitted from all over the world. This year, artist and Royal Academician, David Remfry was chosen to co-ordinate the curation – selecting the panel of 6 other artist curators.

Axel Rüger, chief executive of the Royal Academy and David Remfry, artist and curator of this year's Summer Exhibition

On so many metrics, this year’s curation panel was remarkably homogenous. This lack of diversity may perhaps explain why I experienced the curation of each of the 13 galleries as far more consistent and coherent than in previous years.

Partial view of Gallery VI curated by Clare Woods.

Normally, the Summer Exhibition is a hallucinogenic assault on the senses with the curators’ wildly different interpretations (or complete disregard) of that year’s theme clashing in ways that delight and outrage.

Partial view of Gallery IX, curated by Eileen Cooper.

This year, the theme Only Connect – was interpreted in a complementary way in each one of the 13 galleries. Overall, I found there was a quieter, more contemplative aesthetic than in previous years, with galleries painted soft, muted, colder tones of chalky greens, pinks, blues and variations of off-white. No jarring transitions between the galleries this year!

Bishop Geoff Hurst Twins, Jo Fairfax, Piece 1548 displayed in the Lecture Room.

To my eye, there was an abundance of quiet whimsy in each gallery – and as I love a bit of whimsy, I found uncovering these enchanted gems truly delightful.

No No To Knock-Knocks 1, 2, 3 and 4 by Brian Griffiths displayed in Gallery VII.

The whimsical nature of the curation, combined with a sense of longing and nostalgia that came through much of the curation, made the experience of this year’s exhibition a contemplative, magical and rather meditative journey.

Partial view of Facebook Turns 18: Coming of Age in the Digital World by Jemma Gowland displayed in the Lecture Room.

That’s not to say that there aren’t the typical colourful showstopper pieces that always trigger controversy – there are – so those who enjoy being outraged by art still have reason to visit.

Partial view of Gallery IX, curated by Eileen Cooper.

There were also some repeat performers – pieces that appeared in last year’s exhibition (in one case hung in exactly the same spot) – as well as the obligatory creepy doll sculptures, the regular strange-child-with-weird-head figures, and the inevitable thing wrapped in the iconic red and silver Tunnock’s Tea Cake wrappers, among many other pieces, variations of which seem to recur year after year.

Partial view of the Lecture Room, curated by Tim Shaw.


Thankfully, each year’s theme always seems to encompass at least one Tracy Emin work – and so it was this year, with three of Emin’s works featured prominently in Gallery III. I love Tracy Emin’s work, so I’m always happy to see that it has been featured at the Summer Exhibition regardless of theme.

I Found The Mirror of Love, Tea Cup - Pancake & You, From the Mountantain to the Lake, all by Tracey Emin, displayed in Gallery III, curated by David Remfry.

Remfry has put a lot of thought into the journey through the exhibition – ensuring that the hanging doesn’t create choke points and that there is plenty of space for recovery and repose. This means that despite this year’s exhibition housing a record 1600 pieces, the whole experience feels spacious and uncluttered.

Partial view of Gallery IV, curated by Bill Jacklin and featuring one of my favourite pieces of the exhibition, the top pieces, Diptych by Zatorski+Zatorski, piece number 426.

This year’s Summer Exhibition experience is a gentle, contemplative and whimsical journey. I’m looking forward to a more diverse viewpoint next year, but for the moment, I’m enjoying the unusual feeling of being refreshed and rested after attending press day.

 

Thank you very much to David Remfry for taking time out of his incredibly busy schedule to talk to me about the curation process.


If you enjoyed reading my review of 2023's exhibition, you may enjoy looking at my posts on the RA's previous Summer Exhibitions here.

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