The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition can be a mixed bag. This was my fifth year attending and I certainly didn’t hit the jackpot. In fact, it was the worst offering I had ever viewed. The problem with the Royal Academy and the Summer Exhibition in particular (now in its 245th year) is that it struggles to be contemporary. It struggles to reflect the cutting edge of modern British art.
Yet Norman Ackroyd, co-coordinator and chief hangman of the exhibition, has stated that the works submitted to this year’s variety act are ‘challenging, powerful and strong’. This may be true of a couple of works. However, the vast majority of the 1,270 entries fail to fulfil any of these three criteria. The exhibition is over-hyped, confused, and needs to come to terms with what it is.
I say it needs to come to terms with what it is because what the Summer Exhibition is, in fact, is an opportunity for the public to submit their works of art. However, the vast majority of the public are not producing challenging, subversive, or radical art. They are producing watercolours of the Cotswolds, or an oil of their golden retriever, or a print of a duck (I counted five of these in one room alone). There is nothing wrong with this but the Royal Academy would do well to tone down the rhetoric that it has built around the Summer Exhibition (especially in recent years) about being ‘challenging, powerful, and strong’. I am not suggesting the public’s work can never be these things. What needs to be admitted is that the 1,270 works made up of mostly landscapes, pets, and lighthouses can never reach (individually, and in this case, collectively) such dizzying critical heights.
The Large and Small Western rooms provide plenty of evidence that, whatever it may be, the Summer Exhibition is definitely not ‘challenging, powerful, and strong’. Jane Broe’s Long and Short of It is a small acrylic of a dog selling for £175. This is followed by Elva Peacock’s shockingly bad portrait of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards (not for sale). However, none come close in the ‘nana painting circle’ stakes than Charles Harmer’s Red Bird. This is a truly horrific piece. A circular canvas has been smothered in oil similar to off-custard in colour. The canvas itself features a badly drawn tree with some birds. The Eastern hint is emphasized with some Chinese scrawl. Charles is looking for £900. The only comfort to having to endure this piece is that a cut of the potential profit will help the Royal Academy Schools bursary scheme.
What makes this summer’s offering all the worse is that many of the old faithfuls of the Academy have submitted works that are pale imitations of their past glories. Joe Tilson is especially guilty. Tilson has always produced variations on a winning theme. Usually these involve tiles, postcards, and Mediterranean colour schemes. All are present and correct yet again in 2013 but there is no willingness to challenge the mediums used, the direction of the theme, or the outcome on display. Chris Orr was the subject of a small side room exhibition last year. Much of this work had been recycled and repackaged for the Summer 2013 offering. Whilst one cannot expect new catalogues of work to emerge overnight surely it would be better if the work that did make it onto display was recent, and marked a development in an artistic cycle. Better yet, give the space to an Academia or a member of the public who is doing something original or (dare I say it) ‘challenging, powerful, and strong’.
The salon style of hanging (a trademark of the Summer Exhibition) often makes it difficult to decipher works that are hung several feet above the viewer. This is made all the more frustrating when the image in question is only a few inches in size. However, I urge you to persevere and you will hit upon some lost gems amongst the sea of churches, ducks, and fishing boats. In recent years the print room has gone under a transformation. As well as the old relief and lino cut offerings there is now a growing representation of digital printing techniques. Brad Faine’s Nude Not Naked takes a selection of famous nudes from across the centuries to make a clever and political statement without being too heavy-handed in the process.
Another area that has seen transformation is the architecture room. Eva Jiricua has attempted to juxtapose architecture with sculpture because she believes both disciplines share similar rules. The move has been hotly debated. The architecture rooms usually have a feeling of detached isolation about them. I enjoyed the juxtaposition; it cleverly reveals the natural and often sculptural inspirations that architects draw upon through fieldwork and then develop to produce plans and projections for buildings.
The saviour of this year’s dull offering is Grayson Perry and his tapestries offering musings on class, taste, and social mobility. Some critics think that Perry should not have a place in the Summer Exhibition. Others take a dislike to the tapestries themselves. Whether or not they should be hung as part of the public’s art exhibition is an argument for another day. The tapestries themselves are bold, clever, and honest. I urge anyone who saw his brilliant Channel Four documentary on the making of them and the people who acted as sources of inspiration for them to witness the works in person. The level of craftsmanship alone is worthy of comment.
It is tragic that the ‘challenging, powerful, and strong’ label best fits Perry’s work alone as opposed to the thousand of works submitted by the public. Yet that is the nature of the beast. The great majority of the public who want to be displayed in the Summer Exhibition are not producing the sort of art that the Academy would like. It is too church hall, too suburban, too Waitrose. I believe that the public is producing bold and challenging art but it is not to be found in the hollowed halls of the Royal Academy.