The Royal Academy of Arts’ 250th Summer Exhibition is marries tradition and the 21st century, writes Lana Crowe
The 250th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, a celebration of ‘art made now’, is a cacophonous clash of tradition and the 21st century. The galleries in the hallowed halls of Burlington House were bedecked with varied works of art from ceiling to floor, in the RA style I recognised from Victorian paintings. The walls behind them were an explosion of colour: each vibrant hue, from banana yellow to bubblegum pink, was a signature of the the exhibition’s co-ordinator Grayson Perry, whose radiant flags spilled out onto Piccadilly. According to the academy’s Chief Executive Officer, Adballah Nauphal, “the founding principles of the Summer Exhibition remain clear to see” in this avant-garde anniversary year. On seeing the statue of the academy’s glorified first president Joshua Reynolds wearing a floral garland fit for Coachella, I was excited to see whether the party atmosphere would continue throughout the exhibition.
Having never visited one of the 249 previous summer exhibitions, and rarely in a gallery where the artworks are for sale, the monetary aspect of the experience intrigued me. Not only did the printed list of works I received on arrival detail the asking price of each work, but the stickers indicating what had been sold were a constant reminder of the transactions pervading the show. I found myself being influenced by these paratextual economics: I started to consider works on offer for a higher price, or those that had already been sold, with a more admiring eye, before catching myself with a reminder that monetary value does not equal artistic merit.
It was a wonderland with a Grayson instead of an Alice, a shouting supermarket trolley instead of a Cheshire Cat, and a £16 ticket instead of a rabbit hole. Anish Kapoor’s gargantuan blob ‘Symphony for a Beloved Daughter’ in the courtyard of Burlington House, and the ‘Royal Valkyrie’ (Joana Vasconcelos) dominating the first room of the exhibition, made the people appear tiny in comparison. Suddenly, in a room full of miniature architecture models, I was an intrusive giant, bending down to peer into the tiny rooms of the student housing at Dyson, Malmesbury (Chris Wilkinson) or the Google Mountain View office (Thomas Heatherwick).
The presence of politics in the exhibition was unavoidable. Portraits of Jacob Rees-Mogg (Paul Selley) and Nigel Farage (David Griffiths) looked down on us, side by side with other famous faces of pop political culture (as well as Jordan Mckenzie’s whimsical message that ‘Rich People Smell Funny’). There were also more surreal characterisations of familiar faces: Alison Jackson’s imagining of Donald Trump holding open the legs of Miss Mexico made my skin crawl, whereas David Axel’s photographic oil painting ‘The Inspection’, showing Kim Jon Un and Kim Jong Il inspecting Lady Gaga’s homage to Duchamp’s urinal, epitomised the tone of the exhibit: a witty, political clash of high and low culture.
Other striking pieces on display included Beatrice Haines’ carbon pencil drawing of Stephen Hawking and Hannah Benedictus, entitled ‘Science Without Religion is Lame, Religion Without Science is Blind’. Chris Orr’s droll works, including a cynical imagining of ‘The Bits John Constable Left Out’, made me smile. ‘The Seven Stages of Degradation’, made from a combination of intricate glass and found plastic, is a poignant example of how something so ugly can be transformed into a beautiful artefact. Yinka Shonibare’s precariously balances sculpture of a ‘Young Academician’ and their toppling books was like looking in a mirror.
The Summer Exhibitions at the RA remain open-submission: it’s refreshingly meritocratic to see works of established artists like David Hockney and Antony Gormley displayed alongside emerging talent. Full of commentary and contradiction, consensus and critique, this 250th show proves that artistic traditions do have their place in Britain’s artistic future.