The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is an institution. More than a thousand pieces of art are crammed in every year, with RA members rubbing shoulders with emerging artists and people who’ve never been exhibited anywhere before. Anthony Gormley, Ian Davenport, Jeremy Deller, Banksy, Tracey Emin – you’ll likely be familiar with these names, and they’re all included, but have you heard of Stevey Scullion, Laura Beaumont or Aysegul Armay? Because they’re great. They’ve included pieces that are unusual, striking, and small enough to tuck under your arm and take home (mostly at reasonable prices, too).
ArtCan artists included in the sea of art filling the RA this year include Georgia Peskett with a painting capturing a brief snapshot of a young woman, delicate and transient, Ian Butcher with a clever 3D collage of Dubai from above, and Julie Brixley-Williams with an elegantly composed photo of a sculpture created by the wind.
Other particular hits include ‘Easy Tiger’, (made of teacake wrappers and resin) from David Mach RA, and the ‘Polar Bear’ sculpted with melting wax by Shira Zelwer – political, but gently so. Subtle and clever works included Cornelia Parker’s 'Stolen Thunder (The Final)', a very meta photo of a photo of a previous photo, with lots of red dots... Which, of course, means more red dots this year.
Lots of pieces tackled messages about climate and environment this year – some, like Nicholas Jones' acrylic icebergs, are gentle reminders that we should care for our world before it’s too late. Others are more forceful, including a sculpture featuring litter causally discarded and surrounded by hazard tape. It’s the first time the exhibition has ever had a room dedicated to pieces about the environment, but it may be the first of many.
As was to be expected, there were a fair few pieces that dealt with the looming ordeal of Brexit and our loosening sense of national identity, such as the expired British passport painted on old iPad packaging by Rachel Magdeburg and the reclaimed customs arch from Banksy – one of his rats trying in vain to smash the lock.
The Summer Exhibition has received more and more criticism in recent years for becoming complacent, not pushing enough boundaries and for pandering to the establishment. As a first-time visitor, I enjoyed the mixture of techniques and subjects on display, and I appreciate an open call that doesn’t place too much emphasis on pedigree or too many restrictions on the subjects artists can or cannot tackle. Ultimately, I would like to think that visitors don’t really care who the artists are or where they come from (unless this is embedded in the narrative of the pieces on show). In an optimistic world, I’d like to think that we can judge the work on show by its merit alone.
The RA Summer Exhibition runs until 12th August – visit www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/summer-exhibition-2019 for more information and tickets.