The annual summer exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA), has one certain and consistent feature every year, you know their will be a varied selection and you’ve no idea what will be on offer, but there will be lots of it. It is rather like trying to guess what will be in a pick’n’mix sweet stand if you’re blindfolded. You know there will be a variety of media, styles and quality. The problem of trying to judge quality in a show of this size and nature is the same every time, it is subjective and based on individual taste as much as technical ability or ingenuity. The old cliché of ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ seems never to apply more aptly than when trying to discuss this annual visual treat. And it is a treat!
I think of the RA’s Summer Exhibition as a treat. You go around from room to room with or without the guidebook and just enjoy lots of individual artworks. You don’t have to think about how an artist fits into a particular canon or what the body of work on display is attempting highlight or discuss, no academic concepts to grapple with. You could of course write essays on how the display relates to the history of exhibitions and display, but why would you want to when there is so much more to talk about and enjoy. Equally when you are in the midst of the exhibition you forget about the academic considerations, or at least I do. For me it is just lots of works all hung up in a bunch of rooms in what is quite often a mish mash pattern for you to rush past or meander through at your leisure. You can try to look at all of them or just focus on a few in each room that catches your eye. The fact that many (or most) are available to you to buy adds another dimension and frisson of excitement. You can wander around and comment ‘wouldn’t pay tuppence for that’ or ‘if only I had the money’ and argue with friends or family about which ones you put where in your homes, or even if you’d have to have shared custody because you all like something so much.
This is what I love about the annual show. There is no academia behind it. It brings me back to why I love viewing art and reminds me of the reasons I did an art history degree. With an art history degree you can lose track of why you were drawn to the subject in the first place. Firstly whilst studying, you get lost in reading for seminars, writing essays, dissertations and taking exams. It becomes somewhat mechanical. You learn new ways to look at art and what it says or tries to say, you gain new tools and a new vocabulary and you start to analyze every painting you see and every exhibition you go to. I don’t regret my degree, it has broadened my understanding, introduced me to artists and works I might never have seen or heard of and gave me tools for understanding and new ways to appreciate the visual arts. However, what I did lose a bit with this was the sheer joy of looking at something that is beautiful or moving and enjoying that pleasure for its own sake. And it is precisely this pleasure that is brought back to me with pick’n’mix of the summer exhibition, the sheer unadulterated joy of looking at pretty pictures (for want of a better description). You are guaranteed to have a range of thoughts and feelings, you will not leave the show without having spotted something you loved or hated.
This year’s show was across 10 rooms and contained 1474 works. There are some works that I found pointless, ugly and dull and where I did have that infamous ‘a 5 year old could’ve done that’ moments. However, those were in a minority as there were so many, many more I was entranced by. I plan to talk about just a few here, as if I tried to list them all, I’d be here all and you are all probably getting a bored already, so I’ll confine myself to just a few. (I'll provide links so you can see them.)
The first one I’m going to talk about is one that I cannot say I liked, but equally dislike wouldn’t be right. It’s called Feather Child I and is by an artist called Lucy Glendinning. Its made of wax, jesmonite, timber and feathers and visually you see the figure of a child (made out of feathers, or rather covered by feathers) curled up in the feotal position lying down. To say that it is thought provoking would be an understatement. It completely creeped me out, there is no other way to describe it. Looking at this curled up, feather-child was so deeply saddening and intrusive I cannot find adequate words to describe how I felt in that moment. It was deeply moving. A work that is definitely worth seeing and an artist I’d like to learn more about.
The final four works I want to tell you about are far more joyful. There is a work by Ben Crow, Thomas Hopkins and Sara Shafiel called Book: Solar Topography, The Farnese Gardens, Rome (brass and paper). What you see is a large (fat) sketchbook open about the middle with a relief of the Farnese Gardens cut out in the paper. The effect is breathtaking and the precision and detail in this exhibit are truly impressive and left me wishing I had artistic talent. As it is my artistic talents go as far as appreciating works rather than in creating them! Honestly, I’m not bitter, well not much anyway.
The next two works I loved, probably say more about me than the artist. The first is a ceramic tape measure by Katharine Morling (called Tape Measure) and is made of porcelain and black stain. It isn’t a big piece and it is an edition of 100, which are no doubt sold out by now, but I am determined to go back and see if there are some still left (it has a very affordable price tag of £100). I love it and would love to own it. So it may not surprise you to know that I’m a very amateur seamstress, a novice, who aspires to one day be a very good amateur seamstress.
The penultimate work is called Ferias Diversorio and is a wonderful piece made by Hawkins/Brown and it was fun, cute, adorable and breathtakingly smilicious* It is better than any jewellery box ballerina and I truly wish I had one. This was not for sale, but I doubt I would have been able to afford it. As it is the tape measure is stretching my budget seriously at the moment. Still, for a girl who likes sewing, it isn’t all that surprising I fell in love with this artwork.
The final piece I loved was a group of photographs of handwritten words. The photograph clearly shows that the paper and handwriting are very old fashioned and so it wasn’t a surprise to learn the words date back to the 19th century. In fact this piece by Royal Academician Cornelia Parker is actually deletions from the original manuscript from Jane Eyre. My only disappointment for this work was finding out that the words are not deletions from a favourite work of mine, but Jane Eyre. Still it could have been worse, they could have come from a book I hated.
Overall, I really enjoyed the exhibition and the only thing I would strongly recommend, other than going to see it while you still can, is that you really do need to purchase the guide book for it. Luckily it isn’t terribly expensive at £3.50. In fact go and see it more than once as the second you time you go you’ll notice many things you didn’t see the first time. In fact, I might just now go off for a third viewing…
*I’m aware that isn’t a real word, but it should be.