The joy of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition – 249 years young and going strong – is in wandering around and playing fantasy art buyer. If you had deep pockets would you empty them on that canvas painted entirely black, you wonder, or would you go for an abstract sculpture that would take up most of your living room? Or perhaps you’d play it safe; there were several stickers pasted beside a highly unassuming sketch of a dog.
Such is the thrilling nature of this annual soiree, the world’s largest open-submission exhibition, which this year brings together more than 1,200 pieces by newcomers and famous names such as Gilbert & George and Julian Schnabel. Because it’s such a hotchpotch – Royal Academician Eileen Cooper has crammed in scores of traditional portraits next to mindboggling abstracts and architectural drawings, and still found space for sculpture and installation work – there truly is something for every taste.
So as horrified as I was by Anish Kapoor’s ‘Unborn’ sculpture, a mass of red and pink congealing in what appeared to be an oversized rendition of a person’s innards, I couldn’t take my eyes off Ann Carrington’s elegant pirate ship constructed out of a treasure trove of pearl jewellery, tiaras and wires. Equally, Isaac Julien’s film series, ‘Western Union: Small Boats’, a comment on the journey of the refugee across the Atlantic, stuck in my mind long after I had left.
Without captions or even labels stating the name of the artist – artworks are numbered for committed visitors to identify them using the exhibition guide – you are forced to make up your own mind. Is the bejewelled sculpture of a beehived Amy Winehouse high art, or did it remind me of a children’s craft project involving sequins and polystyrene?
Was a self-portrait in a Nokia phone screen a clever comment on modern vanity, or merely attention-grabbing composition? Was Adham Faramawy’s ‘Come Closer’ a judgement on the volume of plastic being deposited into our oceans to the peril of marine life, or was it simply a representation of sodden material? Was Bill Jacklin’s painting of commuters in the rain a modern take on Degas’ Parisian scenes, or was it simply a bit derivative? (My view was the former; I loved it and its companion piece of a sea of umbrellas in a dreary urban landscape.)
The thing is, it doesn’t really matter. Some of what’s on show is clearly art with a capital A, some of it is essentially populist painting there to brighten up a wall. Some of the submissions are technically astonishing, some pieces you’ll think a toddler could have done better. Some of it is provocative and challenging, some wouldn’t look out of place in a village hall. Part of the fun is in deciding which is the case. And, while plenty of the submissions are instantly forgettable, more than a few pieces are not, especially Hassan Hajjaj’s magnificent and menacing photograph of burka-clad Moroccan bikers.
The critics have had mixed things to say about this summer’s exhibition; the Telegraph referred to it as “the dependably reassuring last word in déjà-vu” and perhaps it is lacking that blockbuster element. But no matter; there are other places putting on must-see starry shows and there’s time enough to do both. Sometimes all you want is to wander around with a glass of bubbly, gasp at the worst submissions and nod at the best, and lose yourself in the Royal Academy’s maze of galleries. The Summer Exhibition may be the artistic equivalent of easy listening, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The Summer Exhibition is on at the Royal Academy until 20 August. Tickets are £15.50