London Calling

Because it depicts the jurying process of the academy's famous summer annual and includes the portraits of a score of academy members, it might have been nice to have begun the show with the spectacular mural-sized "Council of the Royal Academy Selecting Pictures for Exhibition," an oil on canvas from 1876 by Charles West Cope. On the left, the elegantly dressed academicians are seated informally facing a group of standing artists who have brought their paintings in for review. The style is academic realism. The scene is theatrical and heroic and reminiscent of the elaborate compositions favored by the European old masters. A compelling feature of this painting is the plaque on the frame's bottom, where line-drawn caricatures of several of the artists in the painting are paired with their signatures.

The Cope painting is one of several in which contemporary scenes of that time provide the subject matter. Another standout of this type is the moralizing "The Outcast," an 1851 oil on canvas by Richard Redgrave. The painting, which was reproduced as a popular print, shows an unforgiving father ignoring the pleas of his family as he pushes his daughter and her illegitimate child into the dark night. Also filled with psychological drama is Sir Hubert von Herkomer's "On Strike," an oil on canvas from 1891. In this piece, a pensive, striking miner, framed in a doorway, is joined by his despondent wife and daughters.

Old-fashioned realism is just what we'd expect from the Royal Academy of the nineteenth century. But the collection also includes many examples of exoticism, impressionism and paintings related to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Among this last group are some of the best paintings in the show, including "Vanity," the knock-out oil on canvas by Frank Cadogan Cowper, done in 1907 (and thus after the end of Victoria's rule). In it, a beautiful woman, dressed in regal medieval garb, strikes a coy pose, her lips pursed, her eyes nearly closed. Other Pre-Raphaelite pinups include Edward John Gregory's suggestively titled "Apres?" and the notably more reserved "A Lute Player," by Edwin Austin Abbey. Both date from 1899 and are painted with oil on canvas.

There is also a collection of sculptures included in Royal Academy, and they are some of the strongest objects in the exhibit. In particular, the Rodinesque bronzes "Cymon," from 1882, and "The Sluggard," from 1885, both by Frederic, Lord Leighton. These exquisitely done figures are finished in a deep black patina reminiscent of the sculptures of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Even more self-consciously reminiscent of ancient art is the bronze "Tuecer" (1881), by Sir Hamo Thornycroft, which captures a nude archer.

The elevator ride to the first floor gives us a minute to catch our breath after we leave the comforts of Royal Academy and face the brave new world of Contemporary British Artists in the Stanton Galleries. This small show was put together by the head of the DAM's Modern and Contemporary department, curator Dianne Vanderlip, and assistant curator Jane Fudge. Most of the pieces have been culled from the DAM's permanent collection or are on loan from private collectors.

One of the first pieces we encounter is the enigmatic "Three Calls," by one of the biggest names in British art today, Antony Gormley. "Three Calls," from 1983 and 1984, is made of plaster and fiberglass covered with lead sheets and features three life-sized figures looking away from one another. One of the figures sits on the floor with his head in his hands, another is squatting, the third is striding away. The dull gray sheen of the lead adds a dignified element to this signature Gormley piece.

Gormley isn't the only famous artist displayed who uses the figure to create contemporary work; 1992's "Living" is an assembled eighteen-part altered photograph by the serious if fun-loving collaborators Gilbert and George. It is, hands down, the strongest piece in the show. The composition is dominated by the eyes of the two artists, which have been enlarged to a gigantic size. At the top of the piece is a reclining full-figure portrait of one artist; across the bottom is the other. The caption, "Living," is emblazoned in the center of the top. Gilbert and George, who work in a post-pop-art style that owes a debt of gratitude to Andy Warhol, are obviously addressing their own lives in "Living," the topic of which is the pair's survival in a world of AIDS, homophobia and bigotry.

Contemporary British Artists also includes several artists working in abstraction. Carl Fudge's "Terminal Breakdown," from 1997 in vinyl acrylic on wood panel, is an all-over abstract. It was created in a print-like technique based on computer-generated images. The surface of the piece is smooth, with blue lines over a white ground. The blue lines are evenly laid across the surface, but in places, there are seams where the patterns abut one another. This is no shortcoming, since it makes the painting complex and somewhat contradictory, setting the expressionism of the lines against the rationalism of the computer printing process.

Very different are the three severely minimal works done in metallic crayon and pencil on paper by Keith Milow in 1974. Each one concerns a simple cruciform carried out in silver and gold. Milow's work is not unlike minimalists active on this side of the Atlantic at the same time.

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