art: british open


Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, June 10 to August 18 (hurry!), London

A few weeks ago I went to the RA Summer Exhibition, guided by Liz Z, who was going for the fourth time. I had never heard of it. Apparently anybody at all can submit one or two pieces of work (for a small fee), which if chosen will be shown alongside contributions from the 80 Royal Academy members.

Isn’t Britain a great country?

More than 10,000 entries were received this year and more than 1,000 works were on display, many so high up on the lofty walls that I regretted not bringing a periscope. Most were for sale, with bids indicated with red dots. (One ironic picture consisted entirely of red dots.) Liz has a game where she doesn’t look at the catalog but tries to guess the artist and the price, based on the quality, size, medium, price of materials, difficulty of technique and prevailing trends. I gave up about halfway through and just concentrated on the trends.

What I noticed mostly is an obsession with documentation, rather than creation or pure beauty or stirring up excitement – logically enough for a time of rapid change:
– 3D texture on paintings as if they are things to be archived as well as images. A textured painting can’t be effectively reduced to a digital token, nor can a work made with real gold, printed artifacts from an earlier era, or volcanic dust.
– Recycling of old books into art, destroying them in the process but also making them, as Simon Cowell would say, relevant and contemporary. Francisca Prieto’s pleated and peaked pages appear as simultaneously gorgeous origami, and horrifying desecration, but I am glad to have seen Between the Folds: British Butterflies in person.
– Small canvases which make it easier to pack more works in, highlighting the dematerialization of contemporary life and general lack of castle space.
– Sparse, neutral palettes, with the odd muted accent color (Morgan Doyle, Ben Ravenscroft); compare to primaries and neons of the ’60s through ’80s.
– Political messages were mostly covert with some obvious exceptions like the Grayson Perry textile series “The Vanity of Small Differences” in the final gallery and Mitra Tabrizian’s The Long Wait. Not that there weren’t messages elsewhere, but they generally needed a label to clarify them; for example, David Mach’s pink lion could have been about gender, but once you know the name is “Predator” it clearly becomes part of a social order. Many people admired Ron Arad’s gridded car sculpture, which Liz said would make a nifty planter. It’s called “Blame the Tools.”
– Sport and the competitive spirit were pictured, invoking the Summer to Remember, Jubilee Olympics, and Team GB. There was a lot of sketchy Leroy Neiman type action drawing, though again with the muted palettes rather than colors. I had flashbacks to the Ford and Carter years.
– Economic competition made a subtle appearance in places, notably Benjamin Sullivan’s “Queue,” and David Carpanini‘s ageism-aware “Confusion Can Be a Useful Condition.” Sumi Perera’s “Climbing the Sticky Ladder II” also turned out to be metaphorically grounded.
– Old industrial landscapes and abandoned, obsolescent structures. Jock McFadyen‘s “Tate Moss” looks familiar (above). The Becher water tower influence is strong. Also power stations, power transformers, oilfields,  literal power. Social power is not directly addressed. We avert our gazes.
– Depopulated city scenes. News photographers love to take post-apocalyptic empty-stage-set photos of places like Detroit, and painters are loving to paint them. Most edges were hard and square. There were some organic curves and foams in the architecture section and I particularly liked a skeletal/porous architecture thing called Transport Hub, by Maj Pleminitas / Linkscale.
– Broken things, memento moris. Benjamin Hope, who did these blue and white cups wrapped in the Financial Times (nothing deader than yesterday’s stock price), does custom still lifes. What would be in yours? Relatedly, people are still rethinking the semiotics of blue and white. There was some recycling of consumer discardables, like Margaret Barrett’s Metamorphosis (scroll down).
– Animals, like Victorian museum pieces, dead and transfixed. There were a lot of birds and insects, seen as perhaps simpler and cleverer than we are. Birds can also show emotion in a cartoon-like way, as we know. Claire Brewster (blog) showed an intricate frame of birds papercut from maps (she has donated similar work to the UCS Fine Art Auction iirc). Derek Chambers showed children’s bestiary-style prints of Rosie the Rhino and a bear from the Ipswich Museum.
– Maps are a thing, both real and imaginary maps (Ewan David Easton, in gold and black at RA). See also Emily Garfield, who has exhibited with my classmate Regina. Regina likes color too. Maps go with cityscapes. Nobody cares about the suburbs anymore. We recognize a need to cohere (cities) but still want to keep our distance (depopulated). Suburbs are still big in the real world but don’t take up mindspace in this show.
– Science is a thing, and black and white lava and electron micrographs don’t have to go with your couch. There were several lovely scientific-looking images of contour landscapes (Emma Stibbon, Hverir Island, ink and volcanic dust on paper, accept no substitutes). There are artist-in-residence grants for Antarctica and I look forward to people applying to NASA for grants to be virtual artist in residence on Mars via satellite hookup.
– Cats. The RA is no more immune than the general Internet population here. Elizabeth Blackadder had several felines in her RA quota of paintings. Even Tracy Emin knows everybody loves cats.
– Paintings that look like photos, photos that look like paintings. We especially liked the watercolors by Roger Allen, which, Liz pointed out, must have been done from photos because there’s no way the light would hold that long.


Some of these echo a recent conversation with Simon Carter and Robert Priseman, instigators of the East Contemporary Art collection opening in the fall at UCS, which I plan to write up separately at some point. The RA Summer Exhibition has been held since 1768 and is the largest open contemporary art exhibition in the world, according to the guide. More images at the RA Summer Show image of the day on Twitter.


The Ipswich Art Society held its 136th summer show this month too – also open submission, in the best democratic format. They have taken down the list of artists (bad archiving, no biscuit) but Derek Chambers’ woodblock bestiary prints were there too, right in Waterfront: a rhino, a bear, and a fox.
Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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