Monday, June 11, 2018

What's different about the 250th Summer Exhibition curated by Grayson Perry?

What makes the 250th Summer Exhibition different?

I try every year to find a way of bringing some coherence to the sprawling mammoth which is the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.  This year I've split my comments between
  • those relating to the exhibition and 
  • those relating to the redevelopment of the building.
The exhibition opens tomorrow (12th June) and then runs until 19th August.  
I'll be going back for another visit and will probably do a "10 favourite artworks" blog post after I do. I've got a shortlist - but could do with a few more!

RA 250th Summer Exhibition - the front of Burlington House
Let's start with what's the same
  • it's a huge exhibition - the biggest in the world - and is expected to get more than 200,000 visitors
  • it's always going to be crowded - unless you visit at the very start or end of the day.
  • it's advisable to allow enough time if you want to see it properly and to pace yourself with (I had lunch in the restaurant in the middle) in order to cope with both the visual overload and virtually total absence of seats in the main galleries!
  • you may be well advised to book if you want to go on a particular day as only Friends of the RA enjoy all day access irrespective of the crowds. You'll find ticket details on the website.
The way in to the Summer Exhibition

About the Exhibition

#1 - The Biggest Ever - 1,351 artworks, 24% more than 2017 

The exhibition contains 24% more artwork than 2017 - in what I think is only slightly more space (this is a mental calculation on my part re the loss of Galleries I and II and the Large and Small Weston Room vs. the new and additional locations for the Summer Exhibition.)

I gather they committed to looking at 15,000 artworks but that Grayson Perry has indicated he probably looked at c.20,000 artworks in total.

Bottom line - the hang is crowded - but there are many more smaller works and many fewer enormous works.  Those given to HUGE works have typically toned down or not submitted work.

Only one really big artwork by David Hockney

#2 - All the Summer Exhibition posters say "curated by Grayson Perry" 

This seems very odd as I've never seen one Summer Exhibition poster ever mention who curated it before. That's because although every Summer Exhibition has its appointed Co-ordinator (i.e. this is not an exhibition literally by Committee), most of them have names which are not well known to the British public - even if they're Friends of the RA!

Interestingly, with a nod in the direction of history given the 250th anniversary, there is a display of past Summer Exhibition posters just outside the shop!

Old Summer Exhibition posters outside the shop
I'm assuming therefore that this is a marketing ploy on the part of RA because other than that massive crowd-puller a.k.a David Hockney, there is no bigger "name" in the RA with country-wide recognition. That's because both of them have been on the television at regular intervals.

Speaking of which.....

#3 - I got to see the Summer Exhibition before it's shown by the BBC!

I get slightly narked each year that despite paying to be a Friend, the BBC seem get to go round and deliver a programme about the Summer Exhibition before I get inside the door. This year, Kirsty Wark does her bit on BBC2 on Saturday 16 June (9.00pm-10.00pm) - which is AFTER the exhibition opens to the public.

#4 - It's in 3 different places - and all over the walls

For those of us used to starting at one end and wending our way through the different galleries to the end, we now have to take a different approach.  That's because:
  • the Main Galleries have been "cropped"
    • You can't turn left out of the end of Gallery III (the huge gallery this year hung by Grayson Perry)
    • you can only turn right - into the Humprey Ocean room....
  • that's because there's ANOTHER major exhibition about the The Great Spectacle - tracing 250 years of the RA's Summer Exhibition (which I've not yet seen so a review in future)  This occupies the Weston Rooms - meaning these are not available for Summer Exhibition displays. (Here's a preview of some of the works from past exhibitions on display in the exhibition plus my blog post about MUST VIEW online: 250 years of the Summer Exhibition Chronicle)
  • The Print Room and photographic art have also moved to the Sackler Galleries at the top of the building. This is a HUGE IMPROVEMENT. Both the overhead light and the flow make for a much better exhibition.
Panoramic view of the Sackler Galleries - the Print Rooms
click the pic to see a much larger version
  • The third part is in The McAulay Gallery (not to be confused with The McAulay Gallery at Tate Modern) - a very odd inconsequential gallery as you enter the building beyond the bridge. It stars David Shrigley - see below.

#5 - "Art Made Now" is NOT "more of the same"

Perry made a major change by announcing the theme "Art Made Now" in advance
Grayson Perry wants to ‘show the diversity of work being made in this moment’ - and is encouraging artists to submit only work made in 2017/18.

I'm guessing that his agenda was about NOT showing "more of the same" - and it's interesting to see how Royal Academicians have responded to the challenge.

It certainly looks different!

The main differences in the hang on the Main Galleries level emerge on two levels.  There's the
  • imperative of the theme of the exhibition - which is "Art Made Now" - and I now get why some excellent pieces of more traditional paintings were rejected by the selectors. What I saw very little of is art that looked exactly the same as art made by academicians and shown in the past.  I seem to recall that Perry requested academicians to ONLY show art they had made recently.
  • some of the underlying themes too a while to emerge - see below
  • That said there's a very immediate eye-jangling difference as soon as you enter Gallery III
Gallery III hung by Grayson Perry - sets the scene for the show

Unusually, there's a LOT of work from the Open Entry hanging alongside work from the Royal Academicians. To be honest it was sometimes very difficult to tell the difference between the two!

Another view of Gallery III

HOWEVER, the imperative to only show art made in 2017/18 means
  • it is very apparent that, as I have suspected for a whole, some of the older academicians have very definitely lost their touch. 
  • meanwhile other elderly Academicians - such as Diana Armfield (age 98 this year) and  Tom Phillips (a mere 81) continue to maintain their standards and style 
  • What was most pleasing to see is that others have moved up a gear and/or changed media by the imperative to 'be more contemporary'. For example Allen Jones has moved into Video for what I think is the first time. 

The only bit that stayed the sameish was the architecture section. That said I didn't spend a lot of time in there since it had gone back to its cramped worst!

#6 - Themes I spotted: Grayson constants - bears and gender issues

The themes crept up on me. None of them shouted so much as wormed their way into my consciousness

We'll start with the first. Bears. I spotted two teddy bears in high up on the far wall in Gallery III.

Then in Gallery V there was the big red Persian carpet bear by Debbie Lawson (who seems to have 'a bit of a thing' for bears) which generated what was for the "overheard quote of the exhibition"
“That red bear is pretty hunky!”
Red Bear by Debbie Lawson
carpet and mixed media
(catalogue says NFS, wall ssays it is for sale - BUT NO PRICE!)

Then found two more bears in the Sackler Gallery - in among the photos.  I feel I have to go back and a do a definitive count of the bears. I've found five but know there must be more....

Meanwhile, another Grayson theme - gender identity and associated issues - are another major underlying theme of the show.

Dame Paula Rego RA  has a major triptych on human slavery / people smuggling with a very string female edge to it called Human Cargo

Human Cargo by Dame Paul Rego
conte pencil conte and ink wash on paper

I predict great sales for the Feminist Jukebox - an east London artist and illustrator called Pello who has a fascinating website full of playlists as well as art. It's certainly off to a great start!

Feminist Jukebox by Pello
giclee print; edition of 100 at £125

#7 - Themes I spotted: fantasy fairy people / animals - with an edge

I don't have any photos of these - not being interested in fantasy people - but they kept cropping up everywhere.

Sarah Rogers - an Irish printmaker from Wicklow, is back again with another of her very small and incredibly reasonably priced prints of fantasy animals - a.k.a. "best seller". This time it's an image which is akin to a certain famous 19th century painting about a kept woman (by an artist whose name I forget) - with a bit of a #metoo" edge to it. I predict major sales - again (as in 2016 and 2017).

Negotiating Freedom by Sarah Rogers
etching (edition of 275 £120)

#8 - Themes I spotted: lots of pattern and detail

Perry is a man who loves detail as does Professor Chris Orr, one of the RAs hanging the Print Room.  I kept coming across artworks where you had to stand and stare and explore the artwork for ages to really appreciate what it was about.

This is one example - a screenprint by Tobias Till - which is intense! Inferno is apparently
a satirical and humorous depiction of Hell set in contemporary London.
Inferno by Tobias Till
screenprint and 23 carat red gold leaf
edition of 50 at £3,000

#9 - Themes I spotted: remaking paintings

Prints by Chris Orr including
(top left) 926 The Fauves Picnic screenprint (editiion of 50 at £950)
(bottom right) 930 The Bits John Constable Left Out lithography edition of 50 £1,200
The two examples highlighted above are classic examples of this. Chris Orr is also a man who loves the scope offered by the chance to include a lot of detail - including, apparently, the bits left out by Constable! (Click the links above to see these properly on his website).

Another one is a video 150 minutes long which apparently transforms a Constable painting. I recognised the painting (The Cornfield in The National Gallery - I've sketched it!) and looked very closely and saw tiny little changes happening on the screen - and realised it was a video. So it'll be interesting to back and see if it has changed! (You can see a one minute extract here). The rest of the website of the husband and wife team of Rob and Nick Carter looks jolly interesting.

Transforming Landscape Painting after John Constable by Rob and Nick Carter
film, monitor with player and frame
edition of 12 at £84,000

#10 - Themes I spotted - everyday politics with a small p

No exhibition of "Art Made Now" would have been complete without a Banksy!  In a sense, he could be said to have been the inspiration for a lot of the other artwork which uses art to make a point about contemporary society - with or without added words.

Vote to Love by Banksy
spray paint on UKIP placard
£350 million

Although some RAs have been working with words for a lot longer e.g. Tom Phillips - who was one of the few RAs whose artwork I thought held up well next to his younger contemporaries i.e. it looked contemporary - despite quite a few of his 'comments' coming from way back when.

(top left) After Tacitus c. 100 A.D. by Tom Phillips RA
oil £48,000

solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant (they make a desert, and call it peace) is part of a longer quotation from the Roman historian Tacitus in his book Agricola

#11 - Themes I spotted - subversion of the RA

I kept feeling there was a very wry, slightly hysterical and giggly subversion of THE Royal Academy of Arts.  The building kept popping up in artwork.

Here's one example by David Mach RA (who hung Gallery V) - as seen in Gallery VI. Which was odd given he is a sculptor and he hung a 2D Gallery and this is a 2D work. So maybe it's something to do with RAs trying something new for a change? Whatever - there's a lot of red collars getting blown up in the process....  Maybe a reference to the troops who are always casualties when the "higher ups" do battle?

The Battle of Burlington House by David Mach RA
collage, £9,800

#12 - The David Shrigley Show et al

I'm not entirely sure whether this is the "room of fun" as promised or whether that is Gallery III.

Untitled Posters by David Shrigley poster pen and screen print on paper £5,400 each
Closing Down Sale by Michael Landy RA £42,000

The McAuley Gallery included artwork that reminded you of the high street.  It was dominated by David Shrigley's untitled news posters. You can find more of his posters on his website

There was a hysterical menu board called Gangland Caff by Andrew Lee which I recommend a read of.

This part of the exhibition also contained all the "smart artists" who decided a portrait of Grayson was the way to get in - with titles like:
  • The Love of Grayson
  • Sucking up to Grayson
  • I love Claire
  • etc.

I see it as Grayson poking fun at himself.  One of them looks curiously like Phillipa.....

Portraits of Grayson Perry

Another theme on the walls were paintings by those who decided it would be a good idea to do a painting about an art exhibition.

Pictures of exhibitions - they've all sold!

About the redeveloped Building and organisation

Five practical points written from the perspective of a mobility challenged pensioner (me!). It's been my feeling for a long time that the RA would do well to remember the age profile of the bulk of its Friends!

If you bounce around and can stand all day at a concert you can ignore this bit!

#1 Still major problems with the building and traffic flow

I've previously written about the redevelopment in A major overhaul for the Royal Academy of Arts campus.

Here's some examples of continuing problems
  • it's unfinished. That is it's about 98% finished..... but some of the areas I saw were surprising and would no doubt excite a Health and Safety Officer!
  • there's no map on the website that you can print off for taking with you.  (However as a Friend I was very grateful for the well explained map sent with the Magazine). 
    • There's a VERY  SLOW VERY SMALL MAP on the website which you can access - which has no key to show you where things are (which you also can't see) and there's also no pdf to print off and plan your visit before you come. 
    • Instead I believe you can pay money to find out how to navigate the new building when you get to the RA! That's not what I call "accessible". 
  • major pedestrian flows between the front and the back of the building are funnelled down two narrow spaces either side of the main stairs. It's not working well particularly for those in wheelchairs, parents with buggies or those walking with sticks or those liable to fall. It goes without saying that a one way system ("in" and "out") when the building is very busy would improve the flow enormously!
The new Vaults Corridor - part of the new connection between front and back
a huge improvement on its previous incarnation
  • come with your "climbing stairs shoes" on - there's lots of stairs. The building may be connected but not on the level!
  • there are lifts - but they're not obvious and.....
    • some try to make you exit through unfinished building works (I kid you not!); and 
    • 1.5 days of Friends Previews - with people going up and down to the Sackler Galleries for the very popular Prints exhibition - and the Sackler Lift was broken.  I have poor balance, walk with a stick and and am not great/very cautious and slow on stairs when there's LOTS of people climbing up and down. Consequently I had to be escorted to use the Library Lift - which was a treat. Cue pic of the Library!
The Library at the Royal Academy of Arts

  • and there are STILL not enough loos! It may be a major improvement (let's face it - just about ANYTHING was going to be a major improvement!) but numbers available within easily accessible areas still look like they can't cope with peak numbers of visitors in the 'ladies'.

#2 Clutter clear-up within the shop and gallery lobby area

It's very noticeable that somebody with a good eye for how to create visual and actual flow has had a major influence on the clutter within the shop and the lobby area just outside.

No longer do you have to negotiate mounds of books outside - or fall over things inside because too much has been crammed into a small space. The whole look is a lot cleaner and much less busy and you can actually see what is for sale - which makes a change!

#3 Absence of Seats - very unfriendly to older people

I noticed that the Print Room in the Sackler Galleries had more seats per exhibit than down in the Main Galleries.

Might this be to do with the fact that this part of the exhibition makes lots of sales and the RA doesn't want people to leave simply to be able to sit down?

So what's the explanation for the failure to think about spaces for seats in the Main Galleries?

#4 No catalogues for sale outside Sackler Galleries

Somebody did NOT have the bright idea of making the small catalogues available for sale outside the Sackler Galleries.

I knew the prints had moved and decided to start with them rather than the Main Galleries - only to find I had to go back downstairs to the main entrance to buy a catalogue.

Plus why do Friends - who pay £125 per annum for the privilege - also have to buy the small catalogues?
  • These are included in the price of the ticket for eg. The Great Spectacle Exhibition. 
  • Please RA - just bite the bullet and make it one free catalogue per Friend.

#5 No link to sales site until exhibition yet open to the public

Which is why this review of the exhibition includes zero links to the sale page for any of the works highlighted.

Why the sales site can't be open before the exhibition is beyond me. Most art galleries these days distribute both catalogues and market the artwork for sale way before the formal opening of the exhibition.  Isn't it about time the RA caught up with the way the art market works - even if it is only to receive bids or notes of interest on work.....?

This is said by somebody who came away from the exhibition yesterday intent on buying a print - which I can't do because the sale site is not yet open.

It's an excellent way to inhibit "spur of the moment" sales when you don't want to wait in a queue!!!

Previous Posts about the Summer Exhibition

2018 (in order to date)

Reviews of past Summer Exhibitions 







1 comment:

Claire Cooper said...

Taking 45 kids to see it in July. They'll either love it or hate it.

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