There’s something deeply reassuring about a show that has been held every year, without interruption, since 1769. Wars and revolutions may come and go — indeed, entire civilizations may rise and fall — but the annual Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, the world’s largest open submission exhibition, goes on forever. As the press blurb proudly points out, it heralds the start of the British summer season, inevitably turning one’s thoughts to lazy afternoons, Pimms in the garden, cricket, wasps hovering over sandwiches, and intermittent showers.
This year, as ever, the 1,200 artworks on display comprise a bewildering range of styles and media. Painting predominates, but there are two rooms dedicated to prints and drawings, and one each to sculpture and architecture. Unless otherwise stated, all works are for sale, duly priced in the list of works, and over the coming weeks a profusion of little red dots will be an immediate visual demonstration of public approval, or more particularly the taste of middle England as represented by the 94,000 Friends of the Academy. Don’t be surprised, however, if works by the really big names, artists such as honorary Royal Academicians Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz, are marked NFS (“Not for Sale”) or, more ominously, “refer to Sales Desk.”
The exhibition begins with a room showcasing works by the bumper crop of newly elected Royal Academicians (RAs), including Thomas Heatherwick (he of 2012 Olympic cauldron fame), Chantal Joffe, Conrad Shawcross and Wolfgang Tillmans. Also dotted around the galleries are works memorializing the four RAs who died over the past year: John Bellany, Sir Anthony Caro, Maurice Cockrill and Alan Davie. The range of works among RAs is bewildering. What on earth does the slogan artist Bob and Roberta Smith (aka Patrick Brill) have in common with Bernard Dunstan, still going strong at 94, who paints in a Post-Impressionist style and will remember the day when a former President of the Academy threatened to horsewhip that rotter, Pablo Picasso?
Meanwhile, at the other end of the hip spectrum, Cornelia Parker has rummaged through her contacts book to curate a room on the theme of “Black and White,” which, she hopes, will create “a different mood in the space, a kind of visual firebreak” (read: quarantine zone) against the cacophany of color elsewhere in the show. Her selection includes works by fellow RAs Richard Deacon, Tacita Dean and Michael Landy, and other achingly cool “A list” artists such as Martin Creed, Jeremy Deller and David Shrigley. I particularly liked Mona Hartoum’s oversized cheesegrater, “Grater Divide,” and the actually rather colorful “La Derive 1” by young Senegalese artist Omar Ba.
To most ordinary gallery-goers, however, this show stands or falls on the quality of the “send-ins.” This year, for the first time, the 12,000 public entries have been digitalized, but even after schlepping through that lot, Hughie O’Donoghue and his luckless colleagues on the hanging committee had to physically assess a head-swimming 4,000 shortlisted works. Describing the process, a weary-looking O’Donoghue employs phrases like “wild garden” and “broad church,” stressing the need to look “with a benevolent eye at widely different genres.” The overall effect, hung ceiling-scrapingly, salon-style, is middlebrow, eclectic, and timeless. As usual, evocations of Venice and Tuscany feature prominently, as do respectful nods to great masterpieces of Western Art such as Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Marriage.” (You might think that the hard-pressed hanging committee would have experienced sense of humour failure at this point, but not a bit of it: one successful submission, “Hommage to the RA II” by Meredith Morrison-Hutton, is inscribed — erroneously — “Refused by the RA…Yet Again”).
What always makes this show so absorbing is the constant jostling for wall space between homegrown talent and works by the great and the good. The Small Weston Room, featuring modestly sized works, is a handy place for seeking out bizarre juxtapositions, intrigue being added by the fact that the works are numbered but not labeled, so you need to keep referring to the list of works. Here you will find a small acrylic by Tracey Emin RA, “I Can’t Sleep” (price tag £66,000) hanging below “Grandfather” by Brighton-based artist Susanna Negus (yours for £210). “Grandfather” is actually rather a charming piece, and Emin’s effort, which certainly has the look of a painting knocked off during a bout of insomnia, suffers terribly in comparison. Does this bother Ms. Negus, I wonder? On the contrary, I suspect she is tickled pink.