Monday, 6 June 2011

A Mixed Bag: The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2011

I was lucky enough to be invited to a preview of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition last night prior to it opening on Tuesday 7th June.

In previous years I have attended the champagne fueled gala night for this annual showcase. Whilst this is always an impressive social gathering crowded with the great and the good, there is little opportunity to really take in the art. In other years I have visited during the daytime when the general public crowd in and found it, frankly, even more congested.

Last night the galleries were virtually empty and for the first time, as a result, I truly got to appreciate the merits and failings of an exhibition that the Royal Academy boasts to be “an essential part of the London art calendar.”

The event, which brings together public submissions and the works of the Royal Academicians themselves, is one that critics, according to the Evening Standard, “despise” and one that supposedly one of the hanging committee even described as “just psychotic.”

I found myself broadly in agreement on this front. The overall result of mixing Tracey Emin with childish images of blackbirds was a mish-mash of the weird, the wacky and the frankly awful. Worse still, to my mind, was how little thought had gone into the framing of so many works.

Elements of this year’s exhibition, curated by Piers Gough, Alan Stanton and Christopher Le Brun, though, do make it well worth spending the time to visit. There’s something to please everyone amongst the hundreds of pieces displayed– ranging from a coffin made from the remnants of bottle tops and Duracell batteries to architectural models to a Jeff Koons sculpture of a colouring book.

The most fun exhibit, by Simon Brundet, had to be a fake dog munching on the contents of a bin. As it moved and wagged its tale, those present flinched in shock and laughter. It’d certainly make a great conversation piece at a dinner party.

Allan Jones’ “Think Pink” life-size piece of a pink doll surrounded by electric blue wrapping looked as if it was something Lady Gaga herself could have entered and I personally especially appreciated seeing the works of one of the Royal Academy’s finest, Ken Howard OBE RA, in Gallery 3. Howard’s works, in his own words, “reveal, communicate and celebrate” and are always a pleasure to spend time enjoying.

The Summer Exhibition, as much as it is criticised, brings great benefit to the RA Schools through the revenue it raises to support them. Though this annual clambake might not be the year’s best showcase (especially when compared to Freize, Masterpiece and Art London), it genuinely helps fund the training of exciting new artists.

Do take the time to visit the Royal Academy to take a look. I especially urge you to seek out that brilliant moving dog.

Though photography is not allowed, here are a few snaps that a certain someone sneakily managed to take along with a video of a canine companion that would bring laughter to any home:

"Dog eats Bin" or is that "Bin eats Dog"? "Dog in a Bin" by Simon Brundet

Lady Gaga arrives at The RA: Allan Jones' "Think Pink"

The works of Ken Howard OBE RA

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2011 runs from 7th June to 15th August. For more information see

Buy tickets online or by telephoning +44 (0) 844 209 0051.


Peter Osborne said...

Ken Howard is - I do believe - one of the finest living artists. He's a fascinating teacher too.

Glenmore said...

An enjoyable read Matthew. I've signed up as a 'regular'.

Michael Ezra said...

Good luck with the new blog!I shall carry on reading your posts.

Matthew Steeples said...

Peter Osborne - I have to agree. Having met Ken several times, not only is he a great artist but he is also great company.

Glenmore and Michael - Thank you.

Farrukh said...

Interesting thought :)

Dennis Hall said...

The late night opening on Friday was pleasantly crowd free as you say, and at least allowed uninterrupted viewing of the relatively few highlights this summer's show provides. I think you have pretty well summed it up. I generally enjoy the show, but less so this year. A good review.