The RA Summer Exhibition couldn’t be more British if it tried

My relationship with the annual Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy has, over the years, been an endless cycle of expectation and disappointment. For some reason, every year for about the past five years, from the time I first began visiting, I have always gotten up my hopes that I am about to see something different. Perhaps naive hopes; of course, the exhibition is steeped in tradition, having been around in the days of Turner and Constable. But should ‘tradition’ be equated with ‘stale’? I certainly don’t think so. Anyone who saw 2014’s Mr Turner will recall some of the most entertaining scenes in the film were set around the flamboyant atmosphere of a Summer Exhibition hang, artists heckling and mocking each other while adding the finishing touches to their paintings, while Turner himself boldly defaced his rival Constable’s sea view with a daub of red paint. Now, I’m not saying I’m expecting these kinds of puerile feuds to bring notoriety to the RA’s hallowed halls once more. But time after time, I’ve found myself feeling that the Summer Exhibition does indeed have something missing. So this year I was finally prepared to accept, no matter what reviews might say, that I was probably going to see the same show I always do. This time, my expectation was to find a scattering of Tracy Emin prints in Gallery 1; the architecture submissions in Gallery V; small public submissions littered, at the most affordable prices, with red dots in the Small Weston room. The usual stuff.

So imagine my surprise to find that was not indeed the case. This year, the exhibition has been co-ordinated by Michael Craig-Martin RA, known for his paintings of just about every mundane object you can think of, which he celebrates with a fluorescent pop art twist. He has clearly attempted to bring this same twist to the show, the first surprise being Jim Lambie’s delightful 2 – ZOBOP zigzagging over the RA grand staircase, transforming visitor experience before you’ve even handed over your tickets. Craig-Martin’s own palette can also be found seeping onto the walls of several galleries, the shocking pinks and blues actually managing to surprise me. He has moved the print room to the heart of the exhibition, another decision that made me double-take. But then I started to think: what does it say about the show that a couple of room swaps and some brightly coloured walls actually excite me? It’s not exactly equivalent to Turner’s red-paint challenge to Constable. Nothing has really been pushed here. No comfort zones have been left. Then again, it’s always going to be difficult to make anything stand out amongst all the masses of work that are submitted every year, and there is a certain pleasure in feeling you as a visitor have to make sense of the ‘jumble-sale’ (as David Hockney once put it) that is the salon hang. When you do find your own personal favourites, it’s as if you’ve found buried treasure.

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Michael Craig-Martin’s pink signature on the gallery walls

I always look forward to the next in Cornelia Parker’s witty STOLEN THUNDER series, which are photographs of those notorious red dots around a blank canvas, re-photographed every year when it amasses yet more dots. I knew one would be there, `I found it quickly, and I was delighted. But there were new things to like, too. The final gallery, dedicated entirely to Tom Phillips RA, was a real treat. It proved that clutter doesn’t have to be a test to the attention span, as I could have spent hours exploring his A Humument  series, which was a deconstruction and reworking of A Human Document (1892), a little-known novel by W. H. Mallock, with each page charmingly illustrated with collage and painting techniques that blocked out certain words and turned others into a poem.

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Cornelia Parker’s ‘STOLEN THUNDER III’
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Tom Phillips RA’s ‘A Humument’

But the real stand-out for me was Jock McFadyen RA’s seemingly cluttered arrangement of a series of works in the landscape room. This featured portraits of Damien Hirst  and Grayson Perry, painted by, respectively, TV Burp presenter Harry Hill, and Sherlock actress Una Stubbs, who also co-presented The Big Painting Challenge, art’s answer to The Great British Bake-Off. Then there’s also the Simon Cowell by Jean Samtula, alongside Patrick Wilson’s view of a suburban house, Archie Franks’ sticky toffee pudding, Dani Humberstone’s biscuits, and Errol Neill’s Changed Times featuring a union jack and posters for the Glasgow Commonwealth GamesA seemingly random and even incompatible mess of objects, especially in the landscape room, until you realise the landscape they are depicting is, in fact, none other than that of modern Britain. Suddenly it all seems very apt. Stubbornly rooted in tradition while at the same time desperately trying to remain cool and relevant, the Summer Exhibition itself couldn’t be any more British if it tried. And for that reason, I’m secretly really quite fond of it.

Jock McFadyen's stand-out curation in Gallery II
Jock McFadyen’s stand-out curation in Gallery II

– Olivia Bladen

RA Summer exhibition runs 8 June — 16 August; Saturday – Thursday 10am – 6pm, Friday 10am – 10pm;  Main Galleries, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD, 020 7300 8000 ; Admission: £13.50 (without donation £12). Concessions available. Friends of the RA and under 16s go free.

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