The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition Takes a Traditional Turn

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2019 (10 June – 12 August) at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. (Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts / David Parry)
The show is not a gluttonous riot, like last year’s. But it’s a neat treat, with a focus on nature themes.

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London is the world’s largest open-submission show of the work of living artists. Any artist, anywhere, can submit a work for consideration on merit by a committee of artists who are members of the Royal Academy. The members themselves are selected by merit and accomplishment and compose the zenith of the British art world. There’s inevitably well over 1,000 works in the show, stacked on the walls, from 16,000 submissions from all over the world. It’s the best arts extravaganza.

It’s a show that can teach the masters of the Whitney Biennial something, too.

The Summer Exhibition has happened every year since 1769, peace or war, feast or famine. It’s enormous fun, especially last year, the RA’s 250th birthday, when the selection committee was chaired by the cross-dressing ceramicist Grayson Perry. It flirted with anarchy and farce, but I loved its spirit.

This year, the 251st Summer Exhibition was more traditional and tame but still a treat. How could it not be? It’s well over 1,000 objects from all media packed on the walls of some of the world’s loveliest display spaces. Jock McFadyen, the landscape painter, led the selection and installation committees. Yes, it’s a celebration of conservative taste, but it’s done by the Royal Academy, not the Red Brigades. It’s exceedingly earnest at the start, with the first gallery devoted to a salute to the animal kingdom. I love animals, and I know the English are peculiarly attached to their horses and dogs. I was hoping for subversion but instead found earnestness, and where earnestness goes, tedium often follows.

Then I winced. The biggest object in the space was Keep Ou, by the anonymous street artist and political activist Bansky — it shows a rat smashing a lock on a U.K. border barrier. Banksy’s among the most inconsequential artists ever, but he’s famous, so the committee put his silly thing by the front door. He’s against Brexit, though I’m not sure what his narrative is. Brexit offends the London chattering classes, who see themselves as cosmopolitan as opposed to all those hayseeds in the hinterlands.

Ugh, I thought. The show’s going to be about Brexit. No, if there’s a theme to this massive pudding, it’s environmental. There are plenty of pieties about sustainability, climate change, and human abuse of nature. I think they put Banksy’s piece of junk at the beginning to get Brexit out of the way, plus there’s a rat in it. The gallery works as an aesthetic menagerie, which makes sense. The earliest art we know was wall painting of animals. I was happy to see American James Prosek’s Atlantic Cod get a place of pride. He’s a fine young artist with something original to tell us.

There’s a hanging committee of Academicians, and groups of two or three each get a gallery to install. Each gallery has a wall panel giving us its theme. I read them since that’s my job but didn’t think much about them. They’re bromides about degradation, wander a lot, and point no fingers. I looked at the art and the hang. McFadyen, the head of committee, installed a grand gallery “to please the eye,” and it does. The hang has balance and flow. His big Poor Mother painting was solidly good. Next to it was Edward Burtynsky’s absorbing aerial photograph of waterfront sawmills in Lagos in Nigeria. The Famous Siren Choir, by Mick Rooney, was precious and whimsical, and David Edmond’s Sheppy was the most linear watercolor I’ve ever seen. A long row of small works show the joy of oil paint, its viscous nature and yummy color.

Barbara Rae, the Scottish landscape painter, organized a gallery of works with Arctic and winter themes. Her Ilulissat was grand and spooky. These stark scenes, with lots of passages of white-on-white set against blue skies, slow how smoothly realism elides into abstraction. Claudia Legge’s Ice Road, Nicholas Jones’s Austere Beauty, and Eddie Kennedy’s Arctic Sea were very strong.

There was a gallery on varietals of sexual difference. Will Marsden’s Anthon Raimund is a twist on portraiture. Marsden photographs subjects at the margins of society. I like his work a lot. Raimund is a fashion-design student who photoshopped his face and body to create a fake Instagram persona. Marsden made a portrait photograph of the altered identity. It’s clever. Together, Marsden and Raimund created a creature new to nature.

The show sometimes gets unintentionally silly. A gallery toward the end was installed by the slogan artist Bob and Roberta Smith, who, in reality is a single artist named Patrick Brill. The wall panel noted that the artist, in hanging the space, was inspired by what his four-year-old son had said to him. This is a warning sign. Something merely cute and banal will soon be dished to us as something profound like, in this case, “the arts and their relationship to science, mathematics, logic, and even straying into concepts of God.” If a four-year-old ever said something that serious, I’d call an exorcist for a consultation. Toward the end, Bluebonnet by Ian Davenport shows what a conservative show this is. The picture is big, bold, and beautiful, but it could have been done in the 1960s.

It’s a neatly packaged show with galleries dedicated to prints, drawings, and architecture. Photography, painting, and sculpture are well mixed. Grayson Perry’s show last year was corpulent, even gluttonous. Photography was slighted, and that’s been remedied. If the art isn’t bleeding-edge or high-octane, it might be because we don’t live in times that are especially interesting or pivotal. Our art reflects this. We live in a peaceful, prosperous time. Society is bureaucratized, as is culture. The Western world seems to be transitioning to something new, but right now it feels like the invisible hand has pressed the pause button.

There’s no equivalent to the Summer Exhibition in America, and that’s a shame. The Whitney Biennial aims at a comprehensive overview on American art but it’s often a blinkered New York look and, this year, conspicuously lugubrious. I wish the Whitney would turn it over to a committee of distinguished artists and pack its galleries Salon-style with art from all over the country. Now, that would be a genuine and grand gesture of inclusivity, equity, and access.

This year’s Biennial was selected and installed by two young curators at the Whitney. It’s a competent but dull show. It’s earnest, too, but like many other young, well-educated professionals in New York, the curators filter too much through the giant sieve they call “Trump.” They think the country is in terrible shape and filled with awful, racist people, which means everyone not in their bubble. I read their résumés, and I’ve read hundreds if not thousands of curator résumés. They really didn’t have the experience, much less the gravity and perspective, to do a survey of the current state of American art. I honestly don’t think they know the country well enough or are open enough to art and artists between the East and West Coasts. This shows in their selection.

Artists have an entirely different perspective from curators. They think about materials and challenges to the eye. They’re close to the marketplace. Young curators are as far from it as anyone, except tenured art-history professors. Almost everything in the Summer Exhibition is for sale, with the price listed in the booklet that comes with your ticket. This was the case for years at the Whitney Biennial, where objects had price tags. I can’t remember when it stopped, but I wish the Whitney would bring this refreshing feature back. It’s an honest acknowledgement of the centrality of money in the art world.

There are many more merits in having a committee of artists select a survey show. Good artists are less likely to fear risk. They see and know many other artists who work in different styles and media. They respond to eclecticism. Artists aren’t, as a rule, slaves to academic theories. Many of them are barely educated, book-wise. Yes, they’re fractious and vinegary, and some will privilege their friends, but I’d rather see a show that’s buoyant and art-focused rather than a ponderous screed where the art is mere illustration.

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