The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is renowned for its studio ‘hang’, with walls covered from floor to ceiling in artwork created by Royal Academicians and submissions from the general public. This year’s 1200-piece collection maintains the diversity of art that has made the show such a special annual event for the last 250 years. Its curators, chosen annually to diversify the exhibition each year, have achieved a balance between quality and quantity, avoiding the ‘clutter’ sometimes seen in previous years.
The Summer Exhibition showcases the work of well-known artists, whilst giving unknown and emerging artists the chance to display their art on the same walls. As ever, it is the relationship between individual works that often provides a feeling of freshness to each wall as well as a sense of unity to the galleries as a whole.
Cornelia Parker’s ‘Black and White’ themed room is one of the best examples of visual cohesion. Laure Prouvost’s sign reading ‘Ideally this sign would be a little pink cloud in the middle of the room’, is purposefully placed behind Bob and Roberta Smith’s ‘Letter to Michael Gove’ billboard, in which Smith makes an impassioned plea to Gove to promote art as a subject at school. The half-hidden position of Prouvost’s sign acts as a political reminder of how art is so often disregarded in favour of other disciplines. It would indeed be most ‘ideal’ if Art stood as an unavoidable and significant explosion of colour in society, like a prominent exhibit in the centre of a room.
The vibrant use of colour in surrounding galleries stands out against the quiet monochromatic theme of Parker’s hang. Yet the viewer is inevitably pulled back into what she describes as a “riot of colour”, most notably by Wolfgang Tillmans’ prizewinning photographic work ‘Greifbar 1’, which can be seen through the archway. His inkjet print confidently dominates the wall and dictates red as the unifying colour of the whole gallery with its blood-like swirl sweeping across the canvas.
Each exhibit explores a different medium, individual in construction and character yet united by a feeling of fluidity across the room. The viewer is pleasantly surprised by El Anatsui’s aluminium and copper wire sculpture, ‘AG + BA’, which forms a flowing cloak-like swathe across the space, an unexpected elegance emerging from crudely cut pieces of commercial scrap-metal. Nearby, Tim Shaw displays two life-size textiles figures dancing at a festival in ‘The Bisto Kids Gone Wrong’. His unusual juxtaposition of soft fabrics such as stockings and pillows fitted onto steel frames gives the figures the rigidity needed to portray a realistic sense of movement, whilst portraying the softer folds and creases of human clothing and body shape. Experimental media is perhaps visually more obvious in this room than in others. By contrast in Gallery VIII, David Mach’s ‘Van Gogh’ is unusually made from coloured pins on foam and yet at first sight, our assumptions, formed by Van Gogh’s own famous oil painting, displace our realisation that it is not depicted in the same media as the original work.
What is clear in this year’s Summer Show is the strong cohesive rhythm that makes the long journey around the exhibition truly worthwhile. Even if you do not have the time to scrutinise all 1200 pieces, you will undoubtedly leave the Royal Academy buzzing from having seen such a vibrant and extensive display of British artwork in a single exhibition.
Photograph: Benedict Johnson