The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London has been a fixture of the British art world since its inaugural show in 1769. In the 19th century, Academicians would work in a flurry until the aptly named “Varnishing Day,” when the artists would arrive at the gallery to put a final coat of paint on their accepted submissions as they hung on the walls. It was the place to see and be seen, where visitors gossiped about whose art was hung “on the line” — in the line of sight, instead of above or below, each wall packed with oil paintings from floor to vaulted ceiling — or who was snubbed by the hanging committee that year.
The Summer Exhibition is no longer the spectacle it used to be. Expecting huge crowds when I visited on opening day in June — especially considering the Academy’s location within spitting distance of Piccadilly Circus and the oppressive, shopper-swarmed Oxford Street — I was surprised to find the Academy almost empty. Gone are the days of hoop-skirted socialites passing judgement behind fluttering fans. Now, uniformed public school kids plop on down and sketch on the floor without fear of being trampled.
The Exhibition is hung not by a single curator, but by Academicians themselves — artists who have been offered membership to the Royal Academy — and each room is curated by a different member. While this tends to make the exhibition less cohesive and fluid as a whole, it offers a glimpse into the curatorial preferences of several established artists, which is sometimes as compelling or repugnant as the art on the walls.
Flowing clockwise through fourteen diverse rooms arranged roughly by medium, the exhibition begins in a central hall—last year anchored by a towering piece from Yinka Shonibare, but this year forgettable — and opens into a horrendously pink gallery hung by Michael Craig-Martin, exhibition coordinator and mentor to Damien Hirst. Craig-Martin’s color choice is of particular offense because despite his insistence that the “magenta enhances the colours and form” of the works, the pink — let’s call it like it is, I had a Barbie dream car this color—detracts from the art and feels more like Instagram-bait than a meaningful curatorial choice. This first major room sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition: Academicians either align themselves with Craig-Martin’s masturbatory style, or give the art and artists well-deserved space and consideration in an exhibition bursting with talent, both established and fresh.
For example, in the room after Craig-Martin’s weakly hung gallery, there is a kooky portrait of the unavoidable Damien Hirst by Harry Hill. The oil painting stood out on the (mercifully white) wall not just because of its recognizable subject, but Hill’s cartoonish style. However, the Academician who hung that beady-eyed portrait — Jock McFayden — placed above it an amateurish acrylic and oil of Simon Cowell by Jean Samtula, titled “Simon” and conspicuously labeled as not for sale. Simon Cowell himself would surely deride the smiling picture, but McFayden seems to have taken pleasure in hanging the un-ironically bad painting above a portrait of Hirst — using wall space that could have gone to a more worthy artist. By placing a pedestrian painting of a pop cultural icon over the portrait of one of contemporary art’s most famous faces, McFayden makes a jab at Hirst’s own commercialism and celebrity, suggesting that Hirst’s actual artistic ability is below that of Samtula’s. While this is a great joke, the arrangement feels like poking fun of art giants at the expense of the unknown.
Where some singular Academicians fail, the submissions committee as a whole triumph: I saw too many excellent pieces to recount here. The Academy devoted a whole gallery to a new member, William Kentridge, the South African artist whose India ink sketches on the torn pages of books made the Small Weston Room the quietest and most engaged space in the exhibition.
John Hillard’s two black and white pigment prints titled “Height, Distance and Visibility” and “Height, Distance, and Possession” — both composed of two figures of drastically varying size engulfed in a surreal black void—hang together like a Hitchcockian diptych and commanded attention in a busily hung room.
Another commanding figural work is “Somerford Grove Adventure Playground in Tottenham,” an intimate and sooty portrait of a group of London area children by Mark Neville. While Craig-Martin’s curatorial practices left a bad taste in my mouth, I am a fan of his technicolor coffee cup screen prints, one of which was placed well above “the line” in this year’s show. And finally, a personal favorite: a small box containing Martha Schwartz’s metallic and self-explanatory “Bronze Bagel.”
The show’s final room also featured a flashy wall color — now a bright but complementary blue. The color drew together a well-curated sculptural room, and rounded out a generally solid Summer Exhibition. I made several more cycles through the exhibition, first to note the art, then to notice the exhibition’s secondary function as a marketplace. When someone purchases a piece or a print in an edition, the Academy places a fluorescent dot next to its label. Upon my arrival, many pieces were already claimed — whether by prominent artists snatched up in a preview sale or more accessibly priced pieces claimed by the general public. Throughout the summer, large editions of inexpensive prints accumulate the orange stickers like kindergarteners get chicken pox. The exhibition then acts as an interesting peek into current market trends and tastes of local fledgling collectors.
The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is, for better or worse, an interesting yearly experiment in the curatorial power or folly of artists. Sometimes this experiment distracts from the supposed goal of the exhibition: to be the world’s largest open-entry exhibition, a place where unknown artists can see their work next to a Sean Scully. In 2013, the then-coordinator of the Summer Exhibition, Norman Ackroyd, said that the show is “an exhibition selected by artists, hung by artists. … We just choose the best art, and try to make sense of it on the walls. It is a truly democratic exhibition.” And we Americans know better than most, democracy can be a shit show.