Grayson Perry casts his spell on Royal Academy summer exhibition 2018
By James Brewer
He is as outrageous as ever – but always in aid of the cause he cherishes, that of democratising art.
For once, here is an exhibition where there are more eyes are on the curator than the artists. Grayson Perry has created a riot of colour as “chief hanger” of the Royal Academy summer show 2018 and got it off to a high-spirited start in full clown get-up and make-up, from mauve wig to painted fingernails.
His jaunty presentational style was a wonderful door-opener for anyone who might be scornful or frightened of contemporary art.
Grayson is perhaps the best-known artist in the UK, as much for his flamboyant cross-dressing as his alter ego Clare, as for prize winning works across ceramics, printmaking, tapestry that skewer British “prejudices, fashions and foibles” and aspects of the art world.
By inviting Grayson Perry to be lead curator, the Royal Academy has achieved the rare feat of winning near-unanimous rave reviews for its summer show, which for decades has been panned by snooty critics.
As the world’s largest open submission art show, anyone can enter a work and 19,800 arrived – fortunately initially in digital format – at a fee of £35 each, from hopefuls based in the UK and many other countries. Most of the works are for sale, at prices varying from a few hundred pounds to millions (in the case of Banksy).
Grayson and his panel whittled this down to a little over 1,300 works, many and perhaps more than usual from novices. This has produced what it claimed to be the “biggest, brightest and most colourful” edition of the show in its 25-year history.
Exhilarated rather than exhausted by the selection and hanging process, Grayson confessed himself staggered “how this vast exhibition happened.” He declared: “An exhibition on this scale would normally be three years in the gestation.”
He revelled in the speed of the process. The works were hung in 10 days. “I did this room in three days,” he said of Gallery III with its 269 works.
“I did not see a single art work until the beginning of March. You don’t have time for any intellectual prissiness. To play with a whole toybox of art for a few days has been a joy.”
Of the bright lemon walls of one of the two galleries of which he was in direct charge, he said: “I have done it like a palette, a spectrum.” They yellow décor sets off excitingly the mish-mash of paintings calling for attention.
From the notoriously crowded walls to the courtyard, where a giant hard-to-fathom, glowering sculpture by Turner Prize winner Anish Kapoor looms, there is an overwhelming range of work to see. The theme of the whole rollercoaster ride is Art Made Now.
Grayson led a whirlwind press tour, with comments such as: “Make something out of bronze, and it instantly becomes art.” Elsewhere: “People get the words dull and subtle muddled up, as David Hockney would say.”
One of his first selections was an enormous textile work entitled Royal Valkyrie, by the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, which hovers over the Central Hall. “If you want something of a showstopper, she is a good pick,” says Grayson.
“I love her work because it is beautiful, and I love textile art. The spirit of the summer show is encapsulated by that piece.”
The creation, with the impressive dimensions of 625 x 600 x 900 cm, revisits and reinterprets what is described as palatial fashion with the colours and motifs traditionally from Nisa, a small town in the east of Portugal.
What went into Royal Valkyrie are handmade woollen crochet, felt appliqués, fabrics, ornaments, inflatable, power supply unit and steel cables. Boldly coloured and patterned, Joana produced it in collaboration with artisans from Nisa, which is noted for its embroidery, and with the support of Manufacture Prelle, Paris. It is one of a series of fabric concoctions on the theme of the Valkyries, female figures of Norse mythology who flew over battlefields to decide which of the slain warriors were worthy of a place in Valhalla.
Joana’s Lisbon atelier—near Alcântara docks – is staffed by 50 full-time specialists collaborating on her monumental art installations based on handicraft traditions. She has exhibited in many parts of Europe since the mid-1990s, adding to an international reputation after taking part in the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005. She was the first woman and the youngest artist to exhibit at the Palace of Versailles, in 2012. Her sponsors include the Port of Lisbon.
A startling work is London-based Olga Lomaka’s elongated fibreglass sculpture, entitled Infinity and which has the Pink Panther slotted through a strange rack. It abuts a gentlemanly portrait in his velvet-collared City overcoat of Nigel Farage MEP by Cardiff-based David Griffiths. He is asking £25,000 for this – and placed just above that, perhaps deliberately, is a picture named The Well – in flashe, acrylic and oil pastel – by Sophie Lourdes Knight of California, of some animal with its head in what looks more like a bucket than a well.
There is no shortage of politics of all stripes. The elusive Banksy has appropriated a Ukip placard from the EU referendum campaign and superimposed with spray paint the a balloon heart inscribed Love onto Vote to Leave. Vote to Love is a new work, priced at £350m – does that sound reasonable? Naturally, no mailing address for Banksy is given in the catalogue.
Grenfell Tower, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are among controversial subjects for other artists. There are pleas for a restoration of art education on school curricula, and other messages such as Please Don’t Talk to me about Art. A bald condemnation of conflict past and present is contained in a message They turn it into a wasteland and call it peace.
David Hockney exhibits two gallery-dominating (back-to-back and almost 7 m long) photographic collages that illustrate his studio and encourage people to take a new look at accepted norms of perspective. They combine photographs taken from many viewpoints into single monumental images, one of which is called Seven trollies, six and a half stools, six portraits, eleven paintings, and two curtains. This dual presentation is described by the Academy as “an exciting extension of Hockney’s long experimentation with reverse perspective and his manipulation of photography.”
There has been special encouragement of “outsider artists” many of whom have had no formal training, and the RA has worked with artists related to the Museum of Everything, the Koestler Trust and Bethlem Museum.
In the newly joined-up Burlington gardens building there is “a room full of fun” including David Shrigley’s amusing news headlines such as Hole Found in Sock and Woman Spills Coffee, a series of pictures by Martin Parr including selfies of Grayson and a trolley full of sales-clearance leftovers by Michael Landy.
Grayson Perry has included his colourful woodcut, Selfie with Political Causes, in which an innocent woman attempts to navigate her bicycle equipped with model values through a slough of global warming, injustice and tax evasion.
Hinting at a fourth dimension, East Sussex-based John Humphreys has fashioned a head of The Queen in painted fibreglass. It is in an edition of three at £132,000 each. This is typical of his method of fusing the mediums of film, figurative and abstract sculpture “to create a spacial problem instead of providing an answer.”
The sculptor is an alumnus of the Royal Academy Schools, 1977-80. His website says: “His concern with distorted dimensions presents a fresh and interesting way of exploring portrait sculpture, making the viewer work hard to correct the information they are presented with. His sculpture is both surreal and super-real, challenging conventional perceptions of space and hinting at a fourth dimension.” He has always been fascinated how artists, from Greeks and Romans to Lucien Freud have approached portrait sculpture and painting.
Nearby is a more respectful bronze bust, of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother by James Butler RA. There is an edition of 10, priced at £17,500 each. He takes full advantage of the rule that allows Royal Academicians to enter up to six works in the show.
These images of royalty are in sharp contrast to one of the most famous portraits of the monarch, executed for the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. That classic, by Pietro Annigoni (1910-88) Queen Regent, when first displayed at the Royal Academy’s 1955 summer exhibition was a highlight that drew thousands of visitors. In tempera, oil and ink on paper the Annigoni is usually displayed at the livery hall on London Bridge. The photo with this article is copyright Camera Press.
In conjunction with the summer show, the RA puts on a glorious series of displays entitled The Great Spectacle, which spectacularly lives up to its title and examines the procession of genres and styles over the years. This is part of the celebration for the 250th edition of the summer exhibition, which has been staged uninterruptedly since 1769, a year after it was founded by leading artists and architects under the patronage of George III. The Academy remains independent and privately-funded (for instance, the current summer show is sponsored by the London-based money management group Insight Investment, part of BNY Mellon).
In The Great Spectacle are 80 classic paintings, sculptures and drawings and prints, beginning with Sir Joshua Reynolds and running through many famous names, among them Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence, John Constable, JMW Turner, John Everett Millais, Sir Frederic Leighton and John Singer Sargent, through to present-day icons such as Peter Blake, Tracey Emin, Zaha Hadid and David Hockney.
One of the most charming is one of the first that visitors see, an example of Reynolds painting portraits of the beautiful women in the families of his patrons. This is entitled Joanna Leigh, Mrs Richard Bennett Lloyd Inscribing a Tree. This was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1776 and is shown now courtesy of the Rothschild family. At the time of making this work, Reynolds was president of the new Royal Academy of Arts. The sitter would have been 18 years old at the time and was daughter, with her four sisters, of the rich merchant John Leigh of Northcourt House, Isle of Wight, and is writing the name of her husband, who was from Maryland, as a romantic gesture.
Gainsborough, a co-founder of the Royal Academy, is shown here too to be a formidable portraitist, although his personal inclination was more to landscapes, especially in his later life. He famously fell out with other Academicians and stopped exhibiting there in 1773.
As part of the anniversary celebrations, the exhibition is “spilling out” on to the streets of the West End throughout the summer. The Royal Academicians Rose Wylie, Grayson Perry, Joe Tilson and Cornelia Parker designed decorations based on more than 200 flags.
The Summer Exhibition and The Great Spectacle run from June 12 to August 19, 2018, at the Royal Academy of Arts. www.royalacademy.org.uk