Summer Exhibition ranges from life-affirming works out of a country at war, to an artist’s self-portrait as a rubbish bin. By James Brewer
Here comes summer, in fits and starts, but there is nothing bashful about London’s seasonal fixture, the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. At the 2012 show, which runs until August 12, small is considered if not always beautiful, at least worthy of display. There are more works than ever, 1, 474 of them, in every conceivable style and hue.
Royal Academician Tess Jaray, co-ordinator of the show, has taken bold decisions that are most evident in her personal responsibility for curating Gallery III, described as the grandest space of the Academy’s home, Burlington House.
She imparts a fresh outlook to the world’s largest open submission contemporary art show, so that in its 244th year, it feels nothing like a quarter of a millennium old. Choosing a large number of small works, she directed that they be hung in formation like vast sea waves, as opposed to the usual more angular aspect. Just as much quality goes into a small work as a large one, she insists. “Museums and galleries often fill up with massive works that are no better than small works, ” said Ms Jaray. Some of the works of the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer were very tiny, “and no-one would say they are any the worse for that.”
Refreshing too was the acknowledgement that Ms Jaray generously gave to those who had toiled behind the scenes to construct the event. “I had not realised what an undertaking of industrial proportion it is, ” she said at the press preview. “There are teams of hangers, artists, students and others, that do the real physical hard work, ” adding of her own task, “it is a labour of love, because looking at 12, 000 works [the submissions] is very daunting.”
Another impressive statistic is that there are 150, 000 visitors a year to this compendium of new painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, architecture and film.
Ms Jaray was keen to encourage young people to apply, to break down the impression that the Summer Exhibition was just for established artists. “We have an extraordinary new generation coming up.” One coup was handling the logistics of securing the output of five young artists from Afghanistan whom she praised for “managing to continue to make art in a war-torn country. At least from the West we should be able to say, we know that you are there.” Their achievement is “a celebration of life, ” she said.
The Kabul contingent sent a startling photograph by Aman Mojadidi entitled Dressing for Work. When you realise it is from the series A Day in the Life of a Jihadi Gangster, it explains why the subject is toting a gold-covered pistol, hanging from a chain around his neck. Another nod to life in Afghanistan is offered by Mohammad Daud Hedayati in an oil-and-sawdust work, Narcotics, depicting a skull-shaped leaf.
In all, there is little with a marine theme, save for a simple oil painting Ship by London academician Humphrey Ocean. More complex is the neighbouring Peg Painting by Annie Morris, who has painstakingly inscribed human figures on, at a rough count, 2, 000 linked wooden clothes pegs.
Still with the appropriation of the quotidian to the world of art, we have Michael Landy’s Self Portrait as a Rubbish Bin, which is indeed an ordinary bronze waste receptacle painted yellow and black. It can be yours for £26, 000. That is more expensive than for instance Cornelia Parker’s £21, 600 work Now and Then, which is described as “two silver-plated objects, one flattened by a 250-ton press, suspended on metal wire.” They are tea-pots.
The exhibition begins in red – to which the walls n the circular Wohl Central Hall have been changed, in homage to Matisse’s The Red Studio, as a daring backdrop to a selection of highly colourful works. Red goes with everything, says Ms Jaray.
This mammoth show has no government funding, so the support of asset management business Insight Investment as lead sponsor, has been crucial. Insight was launched in the UK in 2002, and has grown to manage assets of £170.2bn (as at March 31 2012) for pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, insurance groups, local government, charities, private investors and other institutions. The fund manager has sponsored the exhibition for seven years.