I never thought I’d use the word irreverent to describe the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. Since 1769 the RA has taken a fairly unwavering and conservative approach to the world’s largest open submission exhibition, hanging up to 1,000 works by both amateur artists and great names. Long the lacklustre foxhole of stuffy Academicians and part-time painters, this year marks the greatest effort the RA has made yet to reinvigorate the English summer stalwart.
It’s no surprise that the man behind the brightest, boldest edition yet is Michael Craig-Martin, this year’s curator and the artist best known for his Pop Art palette and his tutorship of YBA trailblazers Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. Among his modernisms for the show is the decision to repaint the three central galleries in colours lifted straight from his work: hot pink, turquoise and baby blue. Far from playing to mere spectacle, Craig-Martin’s trademark penchant for polychrome is a bold statement that does away with both the white cube mis-en-scène of contemporary art and the fusty grandeur of the Academy. Regular attendees might also notice he has made the print galleries more central.
Before even entering the show one walks through Conrad Shawcross’ cluster of welded-steel clouds in the Annenberg Courtyard, and up Scottish artist Jim Lambie’s dizzying multicoloured stairs. Inside, the 247th Summer Exhibition brings together pieces as varied as a floor-to-ceiling tapestry by Grayson Perry, prints by Julian Opie, Yinka Shonibare and Tracey Emin, and sculpture by Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, as well as hundreds of new names working across painting, photography, sculpture, architecture, and printmaking. Seeing a Wolfgang Tillmans photograph of a hand up someone’s red Adidas shorts hanging on shocking pink walls in the Royal Academy was not something I had expected to see, but it’s possibly my top art moment of 2015 so far.
For a brilliant end to the show, Craig-Martin hands over the entire final gallery to Tom Phillips and his extraordinary piece A Humument. A 50-year work in progress, the London artist has transformed each and every page of a Victorian book into an artwork, cleverly working with certain words on the page and using illustration, collage and painting to create an intricate and monumental piece of work.
Despite its progress, with over 1,000 works in 12 galleries, the show is still too cluttered, and in this sense the RA struggles to strike that balance between tradition and contemporaneity. As usual, the Salon-style hang means works jostle for attention amidst the piled-high walls, with quieter, more subtle works struggling to be seen and eyes quickly reaching saturation point. The Salon-style is for better or worse at the storied heart of the Summer Exhibition. There is the argument that says this does not cater to the differences of today’s art or audience, and the argument that says the RA is a torchbearer of this heritage. Somewhere between the two is the answer, and to his credit, with the more forgiving central galleries in particular, Michael Craig-Martin has brought the RA one step closer.
The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, is on from 8 June to 16 August.