Better than Usual: The Mixed Bag of the Summer Exhibition

28 Jun

I am one of the first to criticise the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition and maybe this year I enjoyed it more than usual because I entered the gallery with low expectations.  The Summer Exhibition is now in its 244th year and aims to cram in a mix of works by emerging and established artists.  This year the RA received over 11,000 entries that have been coordinated by Royal Academician, Tess Jaray.  There are all the usual suspects including Michael Craig-Martin, Michael Landy, Tracey Emin and Anselm Kiefer.  But, this year, the big names seem to have been better integrated with up-and-coming artists, in a way more in keeping with the RA’s philosophy.

Endless Walls at the Summer Exhibition.  Own photograph.

There can be no doubt that the exhibition has changed drastically since its inception.  The thing about the Summer Exhibition is that it’s important to remember that there is no overriding theme or connection between the works.  Fundamentally, this is a show of thousands upon thousands of unrelated pieces.  It is a selling show and people crowd the galleries like pictures crowd the walls.

Visitors to this year’s Summer Exhibition. Own photograph.

The first room that one enters has been painted in bright red, recalling Matisse’s The Red Studio.  After this though the RA have fallen back upon the old faithful wall colour of grey.  Now I’ve not mentioned wall colour in a while but, for such a popular exhibition that isn’t meant to appeal to art purists, I find this an odd choice.  After the impressive vibrancy of the first room we are met with one bland dreary wall after another.  While grey may be a neutral colour that can cause no offence it doesn’t do very much else.

Jaray has curated the largest gallery in a different way to usual and arranged the works in a wave design that rises and falls.  She has moved many of the smaller pieces, traditionally seen in the smaller rooms, to this gallery shifting the focus of the show and showing that the largest is not always the most impactful.  Although this undulating pattern makes it relatively hard to process the works individually, it is far more aesthetically pleasing and it is much better to enjoy this space as a visitor.  Jaray has made use of the works here to create more than just a hang – this is an installation.  This room also shows off the diversity of the Summer Exhibition – whether this is a good or bad thing comes down to personal taste.

Jaray’s wave. Own photograph.

However, rooms seven and eight really deteriorate with yet more grey walls, grey plinths and overcrowded poor sculpture.

Sculpture Galleries. Own photograph.

One room is showing a video work by Jayne Parker, proving that the exhibition is interacting with contemporary media but it is wrong to have this space dedicated to just one work by one artist.  It would be more appropriate if different pieces were on a loop, giving other artists more of a chance.

The Summer Exhibition does struggle to define itself.  It is still derided by the art world but it doesn’t actually make itself available as a public selling exhibition because you have to pay to go in. Whilst I understand charging for the catalogue, surely this should be the one time of year when entry to a Royal Academy exhibition is free of charge.  And so, the show sits in a difficult position and although it’s making progress, it will always be nigh on impossible to climb out of the rut it’s in.

The courtyard transformed.

As ever, the works all blur into one and I came out not really remembering too much of what we’d seen.  It’s a great game though to wander round with the list of works and see how well you know your artists and guess the prices.  There are some fairly good works this year.  There are some fairly bad ones too but this is the best Summer Exhibition that I’ve seen in a while.  I wonder what they’ll do next year…

The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy until 12th August 2012, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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