Introduction: How the Art Viewer Came to be
Art has always had a place in my life, my youth filled with gallery visitations and parents doing what any middle England-class family does, giving their children cultural direction. This Renaissance painting of Jesus is beautiful, this 1980s dollop of paint is tripe.
The route to modern art acceptance wasn’t by any means easy, collectively I’ve probably spent hours sitting in front of sculptures and paintings, refusing to move on until I saw something beyond the physical. At times I’d use the description for clues, but eventually I’d be able find that tiny door that opened my understanding. And when I found that opening it would change everything. Like a weird kind of Object Sexuality speed date, I’ve approached art with little interest and five minutes later found myself deeply moved by the story it speaks. Nowadays I find myself having to contain my emotion or else run the risk of having family or friends disown me for being a posh snob in High Street brand pyjamas, but whenever I’m alone my inner deep thinker comes alive. And those are the times I get truly inspired.
The 250th Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts, London
The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy is a yearly event where people submit art
they feel is worthy for display and, for the most part, worthy of a buck or two (as Michael Randy’s installation puts it ‘everything must go’). Less look, but don’t touch, more touch but then buy. This year’s coordinator was Grayson Perry, a popular artist well-known for his down-to-earthiness, ceramic works and cross-dressing. Promotional images showcased rooms where art hangings filled every inch from ankle to ceiling as if the organisers took immense pride in the clutter as if to say “come visit an exhibition so aspirational that the artists will take whatever space we offer!” While I’d not had the Summer Exhibition on the top of my London ‘to do’ list when I relocated here, once I’d seen it advertised I just knew I had to go.
On the day I of visitation I entered the first gallery and found myself immediately stunned. The summary online had forewarned that art would be in abundance, but some things don’t translate until you physically see it. The second sensory overload came from the volume of people. Never in my life had I attended an exhibition where so many others were present in such a small space. Initially I found these two elements a shock to the system, so quickly manoeuvred to a piece of art further away from the entrance door.
I took an early interest in a pencil drawing that depicted hundreds of couples undergoing a kind of mass marriage in a non-descript Asian country. But where was the description and artist? I flicked through my little list of works book and found the title, Love at First Sight, the artist and the sale price nothing else. No detail, no description, nothing. I looked down at the guide, unable to believe that what I was holding was just price list. Around me people flicked through the books without concern so I gathered that my reaction was a result of being a Summer Exhibition newbie.
The lack of information coupled with the volume of art and human traffic put my interpretation skills to the test. For some there was little to read into (even Trump and Miss Mexico by Alison Jackson made me blush) and a great deal of hangings presented dry humour or political satire. Two striking examples of these values came out in both a sculpture by Carl Godfrey that mocked new housing estate signs and David Shrigley’s Untitled grouping which parodied the devaluing of news.
From Grenfell to Brexit, British politics had a significant influence in all the galleries this year. A portrait of Nigel Farage hung below a painting of someone throwing up, Scream hung next to Vote to Love by Banksy, valued at £350 million (a random figure to pick *cough*).
That’s what I enjoyed most with this exhibition. It’s controversial, it’s mixed, it’s now. It’s not the political feelings and sentiments from hundreds of years ago, or even of a few decades ago, it’s real-time interpretations of people trying to make sense of the world around them. And regardless of whether art is left-wing or right, people on both sides enjoyed what they saw before them. People who clutched price lists and nothing more, others that consumed ample quantities of wine from the in-exhibition bar and debated which pieces to buy (or cursing themselves on missed chances). Everyone chuckled at a high hung piece that bluntly stated “RICH PEOPLE SMELL”. Left wing, but oddly unifying.
The human reaction to creativity has always fascinated me, how as individuals we engage with bits of framed canvas or random objects laid out for subjective review. I was at different exhibition in Bath Spa about a year ago when I overheard a room steward talking to a young couple about modern art.
“When it comes to modern art the most offensive thing you can do is not have an opinion. Love or hate, if something has created an emotion then the artist has done what they set out to do.”
In most galleries the average footfall is much more reduced and scattered, you barely hear more than the odd comment here and there. But at the Summer Exhibition there’s a buzz in every room, the taboo of silence when absorbing art has been thrown out the window and buried beneath the statue of Joshua Reynolds in the courtyard. For instance Harry Hill’s anatomical sculpture Welcome, Come on in and Close the Door (right) reminded me of the game Operation, yet it caused strong verbal reaction in a great many other viewers. Even the most far removed of works can be too realistic for some.
All Things Considered
The 250th Summer Exhibition was a fantastic display of talent, creativity and brashness. As Punch cartoons were to our predecessors, the vibrant creations on display represent an evolution of satire to now become items people are prepared to pay hundreds, if not thousands, for. It was clear that Perry’s influence in the banana-yellow Gallery III created an almost competitive spirit among the subsequent galleries to outdo the last with the overall aim to formulate a spectacle completely different and memorable to anything staged by its rivals. And you know what? It worked.
Ps…A Dash of Alice
Because there is always humour to be found in the most lifeless of things, here are a selection of images that inspired me to come up with funny straplines.
(From the model architecture exhibit room – Gallery VI)
The 250th Summer Exhibition runs until 19th August 2018 at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London. To find out more visit their website here.
And don’t forget…