More enjoyable than it has been for years

By Mark Hudson, Chief Art Critic, The Telegrapgh

5 June 2018 


The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is a world and a law unto itself. Long derided as the province of the dry-as-dust academic painter, the eccentric and the rank amateur, the world’s largest open-submission exhibition – celebrating its 250th Anniversary this year – has made huge efforts to raise its game in recent decades.

Every year, the Academy appoints one major artist, who, in conjunction with a committee of Royal Academicians (each of whom curates a room), tries to impose a coherent aesthetic and rationale on this sprawling melee of different styles and approaches, and every year the exhibition seems to slip away and revert to what it has always been. 

In the first couple of rooms the year’s new look – whether, say, Michael Craig-Martin’s conceptual approach in 2015 or Richard Wilson’s more sculptural remit in 2016 – seems to make perfect sense. But by the time you’re halfway round, you’ve lost all sense of the presiding ethos and with it – very likely – the will to live. It’s not that the work’s not good – some of it is fantastic, some inevitably appalling – more that there’s simply too much stuff in too many competing styles in too many vast, palatial rooms. 

This year’s co-ordinator is Grayson Perry, who promises an emphasis on “fun and colour”. Well, there’s nothing like a prediction of “fun” to induce stone-faced indifference in the viewer, and Perry’s own recent exhibitions suggest he has little enough time for his own work, between TV presenting and lecturing, let alone for an event of this magnitude. But let’s not rush to judgement. 

As you enter the Academy’s imposing central rotunda, you find a gigantic cloth sculpture by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos hanging over you, like some jewelled and fringed velvet candelabra without lights. If it’s pretty hideous, it certainly makes an impact. Surrounding it are an array of quirky paintings, many by unknown artists, from Michael Alan-Kidd’s Cleansing of the Poor, showing a monster-faced bulldozer marked ‘Council Gentrification’ about to eat a suburban house, to Avi Lehrer’s In the Pub, in which the Queen, the Pope and van Gogh sit spaced-out at a cafe table in a parody of Degas. 

Here, Perry is clearly flouting established precedent, in which the Summer Exhibition usually opens with its biggest and most credible artists. But it’s in the second room, the largest in the show, that he really sets out his stall. Painted a screaming yellow, the walls are packed from floor to ceiling with a wildly incongruous riot of works, in which meticulous portraits and views of gardens by some of the last surviving old school figurative academicians, such as Ken Howard and Olwyn Bowey, compete for attention with wackily subversive pieces such as Olga Lomoka’s Infinity, in which a large Pink Panther figure is threaded through the vertical arabesques of an abstract painting, and Linda Burrows’s Bottycelli Does Glasto, Toothbrush, Condom, Lighter and a Packet of Mints, with its buttock-faced central figure.

Perry seems out to turn the Summer Exhibition back to the cranky visual cacophony of old, in celebration of the kind of classic British eccentricity and individualism that he relishes in his TV programmes – but with a definite political twist. Indeed, images of current political figures are everywhere: Nigel Farage in an apparently straight old-fashioned portrait, a photographic mock-up of Trump pleasuring Miss Mexico, Jeremy Corbyn in a seaside postcard pastiche and a painting entitled The Inspection: Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il inspecting Lady Gaga’s Homage to Duchamp Urinal.