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There is a visible lightness of touch at the Royal Academy’s 243rd Summer Exhibition at Burlington House, in Piccadilly, London. The experience this year is one of seductive enticement: a new layout of the gallery space; a room dedicated to the works of new academicians; a new version of the ‘salon hang’; and a rearrangement of the print room. Overseeing it all is the Royal Academician Christopher Le Brun, in his own words the ‘chief hanger’ of the exhibition.
As an opener, in the Burlington House courtyard a giant sculpture Coloring Book was specially created for the exhibition by the American artist Jeff Koons Hon RA (an honorary member since last year). The piece is part of Koons’ ‘Celebration’ series, dedicated to Western society’s interest in ‘infantilism and youth’. The high-chromium stainless steel surface has a transparent colour coating decorated with swirls of colour. The reflective surface captures images of visitors, the courtyard’s formal architecture, and the garlanded statue of the first president of the RA, Sir Joshua Reynolds, a visual reminder of the very first Summer Exhibition in 1768. Closer to the entrance is the enigmatic memorial sculpture created by James Butler RA, Rainbow Division Memorial.
Amongst Christopher Le Brun’s aims for this year’s exhibition has been to create more space to view 1,100 pieces of artwork (whittled down from 12,000 entries from 27 countries), comprising 660 general submissions and 440 by Royal Academicians – of paintings, prints, sculpture, photography, film and architecture, in this annual platform for established and emerging artists. Most of the works are for sale. Regular visitors to the annual exhibition will notice a key change in the order of viewing. Instead of entering the exhibition sideways through the print room, now, from the top of the grand staircase, visitors go straight ahead into the octagonal Central Hall. Placed at the centre is a chair-stack sculpture by Martin Creed, Work no.998,and on the walls an exhibition of new photography. It’s a bold starting point, featuring 30 works selected by Michael Craig-Martin RA from a larger group chosen by the RA pre-selection committee. It includes about 90% submitted by unknown artists. Among the more familiar names are works by Cindy Sherman, Darren Almond, and Garry Fabian Miller. The placement of photography in the first room is a statement that Christopher Le Brun wanted to make, to drown out arguments about whether photography is an art.
From this room, one can move directly ahead to architecture (Gallery VI), a visible reminder by Le Brun that architects are key members of the Royal Academy. In this gallery, hung by the architect Piers Gough RA, a diverse group of architectural works are displayed, including a wooden model of Colección Jumex, Mexico City, by architect David Chipperfield RA, designer of the new Turner Contemporary at Margate. There are many spectacular models – some unfortunately made sterile by glass or clear plastic casings – and on the walls remarkable prints and drawings.
Another of Le Brun’s ideas was to invite Michael Craig-Martin RA to curate a single room. By turning right from the octagonal hall one enters the ‘Lecture Room’ where Craig-Martin has chosen 24 works to explore the artistic diversity of Royal Academicians. The ‘white cube’ room features works by new academicians with some pieces specially created for it. Over the last ten years the RA has elected 40% new membership. Craig-Martin explains ‘I thought this year just to show people who are members of the academy, as the membership has changed a lot....’ From the new membership Craig-Martin wanted to emphasize the growing number of RA women artists, hence the inclusion of Lisa Milroy, Tacita Dean, Gillian Wearing, and Tracey Emin, Fiona Rae, Alison Wilding and Jenny Saville. Here, in a room of paintings, sculpture and photography, one also finds works by Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow, Allen Jones and Gary Hume, David Mach, Michael Landy and Anish Kapoor, to name a few of the male artists. Each work has been given the same amount of space, which also includes works by Craig-Martin and Le Brun.
By contrast, on the opposite side of the octagonal hall we turn to Christopher Le Brun’s personal challenge, the reintroduction of a traditional ‘salon hang’ (Gallery III). In a display of 96 paintings, Le Brun, working together with Tony Bevan RA, has created a floor-to-ceiling ‘salon hang’ on dark painted walls, to reveal the grandeur of this light-filled room with, as he says, ‘not quite a battle of the paintings but a frank showing of what’s happening today in painting’. In special place, on the far wall opposite the room entrance, is the stunning painting Ohne Titel by Danish artist Per Kirkeby, who was made an honorary academician this year.
Le Brun explains his reasons for the re-introduction of a floor-to-ceiling hang of paintings. ‘The old salon hang went out of fashion because it was so terrible to be “skied”’, that is, for the artist to find his work ‘so high up that it couldn’t be seen at all’. He feels that what the new hang demonstrates is that many of the large contemporary paintings might even look better ‘skied’. Le Brun gives an example of how it works in the juxtaposition of Keith Tyson’s dramatic work Deep Impact and above it Lisa Milroy’s G, 2010, in Le Brun’s words, ‘quite a difficult picture to hang’. Here, the vast paintings complement each other. In this room everything vies for your attention and Le Brun feels it is up to the individual to choose their own way through it. It includes paintings by academicians Maurice Cockrill, Ken Howard, and Olwyn Bowey, Fred Cuming, Humphrey Ocean and the late Ben Levene.
Leading off left from this room are Galleries I and II, the new print rooms. Chris Orr RA was allotted the key task of changing the format for hanging the prints. Formerly artworks were tightly packed together in the Large Weston Room, creating a neck-straining scrum on busy days. It was the hanging committee’s decision to acknowledge prints more and to give them space. Prints have become very important to the Academy, as Orr comments, ‘If you go back a long way to Joshua Reynolds time, prints were regarded as something slightly inferior...now it’s a major medium of expression ...this year we have acknowledged that the prints are as important as the paintings’. In the two-room display of about 300 works many are by Royal Academicians, allowing collectors to pick up a less expensive piece of their artwork, for example the vibrant The Seeds that Woke the Clay, 2009–10 by Gillian Ayres RA (edition of 50: £1,200 each); Searching High and Low for the Big Society by Peter Freeth RA (edition of 30; £200 each); or So Sweet by Tracey Emin RA (edition of 100; £350 each).
With so much to see on the walls, sculpture must not be missed. Amongst a substantial group of works is the sensational Funnel,a work in oak by David Nash RA, in Gallery IV. And look out for Dog in a Bin in Gallery VIII, an unnerving moving sculpture made of rubber, bin and motor, submitted by Simon Brundret (edition of three: £5,800 each).
This year, as every year, according to Christopher Le Brun, there are RA members who question the relevance of having a summer exhibition. He understands their viewpoint but is part of the majority of members who want to continue its tradition and its main aim, the funding of the RA School of Art. The funds raised from the Summer Exhibition submission of works, visitor attendance, and the sale of works – the RA takes 30% commission from the sale of each work – help to fund the only free art school in the country. It is a good cause and one that is easy to support by visiting this refreshing display of contemporary art.
Media credit: © The artist