British sculptor Richard Wilson coordinates the 248th annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the world’s largest open submission art show. It’s naturally a mammoth, exhaustive exhibition, taking up most of the RA’s main galleries, its walls crammed with images competing for attention. With more than a thousand pieces on display, how does one begin to digest this selection of works from up and coming artists from around the world?
Things are further complicated by the inclusion of more recognisable “invited artists”, primarily artistic duos. It’s a summer party, and it seems everyone’s invited. Wilson has assembled an all-star cast that threatens to overshadow submissions from the core group of emerging artists.
Thus big names such as Gilbert and George, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, and even Eva & Adele stand proudly alongside works by honorary Academicians including Anselm Kiefer, El Anatsui, Georg Baselitz and Marina Abramović.
Indeed, the submitted works, which are selected by a Royal Academy committee, appear to be arranged around the invited artists. The most striking piece on display is by Kutluğ Ataman, a Turkish filmmaker whose The Portrait of Sapik Sabanchi is an illuminated tapestry of 10,000 passport-style photographs, dominating the gallery in a glittering wave.
Elsewhere the Chapman Brothers, who reliably stick two fingers up at the stuffy art establishment, are on typically ghoulish form, with a piece involving life-size figures in bad wigs holding their own eyeballs.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with focusing on invited artists – there are some brilliant and challenging works here – but it exposes the Summer Exhibition’s unwieldy dual function. On the one hand it must follow the tradition of displaying submissions that, if selected on merit as opposed to theme, defy cohesive display. On the other hand, the show needs to champion the RA’s role as “an international institution engaged with global art”. Doing both well is no mean feat.
Works from submitted artists run the gamut from full-blown conceptual to more formally representative, shying from the boring photo-realism that’s enjoyed prominence in recent years. There are some excellent pieces here, enough to restore your faith in the relevance of contemporary painting, even if the smattering of more populist sculptures, such as Steven Haines’s bronze Iggy Pop, or Annie Whiles’s painted wooden dogs, are destined to be selfied to death.
Wilson’s aim is for every room to contain something “exciting, unusual and provocative”, and he succeeds. But the range and quality of works from up-and-coming artists makes you question the wisdom of inviting a load of contemporary superstars, most of whom are more than capable of carrying shows of their own. I can’t help but feel the RA has slightly missed the point.