It’s hard to be dispassionate about the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition. Now in its 247th year, the exhibition has been held annually, without interruption, since 1769, the year after King George III founded the Royal Academy Schools in London’s Mayfair. It is the oldest open-submission art exhibition in the world and is an established part of the British summer, along with Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, Pimms and wasps at picnics. Aside from giving opportunities for any artist, professional or amateur, to submit work for inclusion in the exhibition, the sales of works from the show help to fund the Royal Academy schools, which train the artists of the future. So to criticize it too heavily seems doubly churlish.
The show is, and always has been, a curious mishmash — a “jumble sale,” as David Hockney once described it — as applicants may send in works in all media: paper, prints, watercolors, drawings, oil paintings, photographs and sculpture. There’s even a section for architectural drawings and models, some serious, some wacky and impossible to conceive as a finished structure. What makes the show interesting is the blurring of the fine line between “professional” and “amateur”: works are displayed with numbers only and one must refer to the “List of Works” (a fat little book that people clutch as they wander round the galleries) to find out the artist’s details (and price of work if it is for sale). It’s a very democratic exhibition.
This year the exhibition is coordinated by Michael Craig-Martin, a leading British artist and an influential teacher, who nurtured the talents of Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst, while individual galleries are curated by members of the Royal Academy (the “Academicians”), including David Remfry, Jock McFadyen, Alison Wilding and Bill Woodrow. As is customary, academicians are allowed to submit up to six of their own works, and this year there is an opportunity to see a large, colorful and somewhat ironic tapestry by Grayson Perry, muted and meditative prints of the Galapagos Islands by Norman Ackroyd, together with works by other leading Academicians such as Antony Gormley and Tom Phillips. There are also works by Honorary Academicians Anselm Kiefer, Jasper Johns, Edward Ruscha, Jim Dine, Tadao Ando and Renzo Piano.
Color is the theme of this year’s exhibition, and this hits the visitor as soon as one enters Burlington House, where the staircase leading up to the main galleries has been turned into a Pop Art installation by Jim Lambie, created from strips of colored tape (see video above). It’s jazzy and zingy and its sweetie-shop colors are echoed in the first room, whose walls are painted a deep turquoise. The displays are equally colorful, from Matthew Darbyshire's “Doryphoros”, inspired by Polykleitos's ancient Greek sculpture of a spear-bearer (created from the very modern material of polycarbonate) to Christopher Le Brun’s brightly-colored canvases. Suspended from the ceiling are panels of colored acrylic, an installation by guest artist Liam Gillick that challenges our perceptions of space and volume.
This year the displays are sparer, and the Small Weston Room, previously crammed floor-to-ceiling with small works, is devoted to just one artist, South African William Kentridge's take on the treason trial of Nelson Mandela in 1956. Later on in the exhibition, visitors have the opportunity to view a remarkable work by Tom Phillips RA: “Humunent” has been in progress since 1966 and over the past 49 years, Phillips has altered every page of a Victorian book entitled “A Human Document”, transforming it with drawing, painting, collage and cutouts. Each page is displayed in a simple clip frame, all identical. It’s worth seeing for its scale, if nothing else.
In the courtyard outside, sculptor William Shawcross has created a special site-specific installation. “The Dappled Light of the Sun” consists of a group of five steel “clouds” whose branching forms are made up of thousands of tetrahedrons. Like Liam Gillick’s work inside, this also challenges notions of space, mass and weight.
It sounds glib to say so, but there really is something for everyone at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It can be overwhelming, with more than 1,200 works on display (whittled down from 12,000-plus submissions), but it’s a pleasure to wander the elegant, airy rooms of Burlington House and with the jumble-sale format reined in this year, visitors are given a wonderful snapshot of contemporary art, all in one place.