The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is always interesting, because in one intense burst you get a snapshot of what people up and down the land are actually producing and what people are prepared to fork out good money for. Once the artworks have had a chance to accumulate, or fail to accumulate, little red sold circles, it becomes an exercise in sociology as much as art appreciation and all the better for that.
So what sells?
- Anything to do with cats
- Anything for less than £150
- Cats that are less than £150
- Paintings or photographs in shades of grey, the difference being that in art, rather than books, shades of grey couldn’t possibly be said to be in poor taste
- Bizarre things you think are in execrable taste,
- and finally a painting you might have bought had you the money, because amongst all the boring, sentimental and the weirdly horrible there is some fairly good stuff (aka stuff I think is good because every single piece has to be thought of as good by somebody otherwise it wouldn’t be there)
The Summer Exhibition demonstrates, as nothing else can, the subjectivity of taste. I had just finished slagging off what I thought was an extraordinarily horrible art work; round it was and vaguely glittery. I have strong views about glitter; it should be limited to Christmas cards and self-adornment by the under 20s, when two women, possibly mother and daughter made a bee line for the work and spent some time in front of it. Might they actually be thinking of buying it? Where would they possibly put it. Alas I failed to capture it. Photography is forbidden so I and quite a few others pretend to be checking our mobiles and take a surreptitious photograph before attracting the attention of the attendants. Inevitably some of the results are a bit lopsided.
This year it is the turn of the small painting; they are hung in the Grand Gallery to give more emerging artists a chance. The sculptures on the other hand seem to be heaped up willy-nilly as if they are a job lot in a provincial auction.
There are fewer red circles among the sculptures, though I do notice that a bronze cat is already taken. The £150 rule applies here as well, an edition of a ceramic tape measure and a box of matches are both enviably red spotted.
If the small paintings have centre stage, they do not individually have more space. They are hung in a wave that goes round the room and which actually looks better in reality than it does in photographs. As an installation, perhaps exploring the futility of painting, the arrangement is strong enough. However stacked on top of each other some ten deep, the eye is drawn by bursts of colour and then goes off at a tangent: “ugh I don’t like that pink one!” “why did they choose that dog?” There is of course no information; the catalogue gives the name of the artist and the price; artists’ works are separated so it is hard to make comparisons or get any sense of an artist’s style.
I spot two by Tom Hammick – in different rooms. Tom is a tutor at Brighton University; he had rather a splendid exhibition at Brighton Museum. I like his work – the two the RA have chosen are pleasant enough but not to my mind nearly as good as his picture of a filling station or the slightly strange picture of some hoardings. They are small however.
I also track down one by Patrick Adam Jones. Patrick is a brilliant tutor and head of the FDA course in Fine Art Contemporary Practice at Sussex Coast College. If I hadn’t scoured the catalogue I would have never have found it. It is half way down a wall, small, white, almost translucent, deceptively simple actually rather interesting but completely let down by its position. It needed room to breathe.
I tell Patrick I have seen his painting; he is embarrassed even to be in the exhibition, though his Mum is pleased, and probably his kids too because he did take them to see it there, though he said he had to buy then a good lunch to make up for it. Pleasing your Mum and your kids has its attractions. He was persuaded to submit, he says; rather unconvincingly, he adds ‘never again’.
This is the problem with the Summer Exhibition, successful artists feel self-conscious and apologetic about taking part. That is hardly surprising in view of some of the stuff that gets in, some of the truly terrible stuff that is trotted out by Royal Academicians and because if you a happen to be selected it was because your painting was small rather than the one you consider to be your best. The Summer Exhibition is in its 244th year, people have been talking about updating it for at least the last 50 years probably the last 100; this year the Exhibition has had a rather a better press than usual, so the embarrassment factor may be diminishing. To make it really cutting edge would mean fewer works by Academicians, fewer art works chosen overall, more space given to each one; nobody would be happy with that either: the punters couldn’t buy the cats, with over 12,000 works submitted annually, even more artists would be turned down and the RA would make less money, so things are unlikely to change that much.