Friday, 16 August 2019

Sour Grape Solution

Painting | River Avon mud on linen on wood, by Richard Long
(200 x 520 cm i.e. BIG)

We've been in Bristol for the past week, watching the torrential rain alternate with strong sunshine, and the tidal river Avon fill up and then drain away to muddy nothing twice a day from our fourth-floor vantage point over the Avon Gorge, but on Monday we caught the train to London to see an old friend and her son, who are visiting from the USA. We chose to meet up at the Royal Academy, on the last day of the annual Summer Exhibition.

It's a strangely hybrid event, the RA Summer Exhibition. Essentially, it is a combination of Royal Academicians' own choice of their own work and an open submission call, which has been shortlisted from thousands of online entries by a panel of Academicians, and then refined into a "hang" by particular artists given responsibility for one or more of the fourteen exhibition rooms in the Academy's august premises on Picadilly. I had a major RA success myself by getting a couple of prints into the 2017 show, but since then have failed to get beyond the shortlisted stage. Which is annoying, obviously, but doubly so when you visit and see what has made it to the hang.

A show of over 1500 works is difficult to absorb in a single visit, it goes without saying. Not least when trying at the same time to catch up with someone I have known for over 45 years, a member of my Elective Family, no less, who chose to make her life in America, for reasons I can't begin to remember now. But it's impossible to avoid the impression that, after 250 years, this is an exhibition formula that needs some serious reconsideration. It's stale, and does nobody's work any favours. (I know, I know: those grapes were probably sour, anyway...).

Now, I know a fair bit about art, compared to the average citizen, but not compared with the average RA. I wouldn't choose to arm-wrestle, metaphorically, with the likes of Grayson Perry or Cornelia Parker over what is or is not worthy of selection for the Summer Show. Although if it was a way to get my own stuff in I'd happily offer to actually arm-wrestle either of them: shape up and show me what you've got, Cornelia! But something is clearly wrong with a process that results in such an overwhelming sea of crap.

For a start, there's the salon-style hang: the pictures are too densely crammed together, from low down on the wall to high up: practically 20 feet above your head in some rooms. What possible point is there is in selecting some poor devil's modestly-sized painting or print, only to hang it next to an attention-grabbing, billboard-sized work by some titan of the art world or, worse, way up where no-one not in possession of binoculars can see it? Yes, it's traditional, but no, it doesn't work any more, not when so few of us produce work at salon scale. So, Solution 1:

Be far more selective, and hang fewer works in a more sympathetic eye-level display. Stop treating other people's work as mere decor, and take it as seriously as you do your own.

Then there's the general standard of competence. I get the impression that the Academy is troubled by two accusations: elitism and stuffiness. It's not just the Royal Academy, of course. Everywhere you look, standards of competence have been reduced, generally in the name of "inclusivity", "access", and "relatability". It's so patronising, though: as if the problems of education, racism, class, and gender-bias could be solved just by continually lowering the price of the ticket of entry. Or as if "talent" and "taste" were somehow oppressive attributes, deserving of "disruption", and had absolutely nothing to do with, say, your own election to the Royal Academy. The trouble is, guys, once you drop the severe judgement criteria you apply to your own work and that of your peers, all judgement goes out the window. So, Solution 2:

Stop selecting colourful, incompetent work because you think it makes you look fun and inclusive. By all means be fun and inclusive, but see Solution 1. And give drab a chance!

Now, a cynic might think that Academicians like to select obviously incompetent sunday-painter stuff because it makes them look good by contrast. But I was finding that quite often, when I looked up what seemed to me some egregious piece of rubbish in the List of Works (the hang is anonymous and numbered), it turned out to be the work of an Academician (they can't resist putting "RA" after the name). I mean, what is one to make of work like this?

Hmmm... A weaver bird (?!) and a goldfinch, two of a series of birds painted by Humphrey Ocean RA, available at just £2,700 each (framed, obvs). Admittedly, Mr. Ocean [1] used to be the bassist with Kilburn and the Highroads, but he was elected a Royal Academician in 2004, has been Royal Academy Professor of Perspective (a position once held by Turner) since 2012, and has exhibited at every major British gallery you care to name. I was not, am not, and have not achieved any of the above, needless to say, so what do I know? Well, apart from the suspicion that Humphrey is making an art out of taking the piss. I confess to having had my tastes calibrated in the mid-1970s, when Richard Long was young, Tom Phillips produced an album cover for King Crimson, and even cars were brown. But I was surprised how few people were stopping to absorb and admire Long's enormous, mesmerically rhythmic work of smeared River Avon mud in Gallery 2 (see above). Too drab, too tastefully restrained, too free of readable bien-pensant meaning?  Then, of course, there's the strange case of Rose Wylie OBE RA. Crikey... But, again, what do I know? I mean, clearly, few things are as tedious as those photo-realistic pencil portrait drawings you see all over the Web, or yet another sub-Bonnardian bohemian breakfast table in paint, but – pace Picasso – the remedy for witless skill-for-skill's-sake or oh-so-tasteful retro-cliché is surely not pretending to paint like a mentally-disturbed 6-year-old.  Solution 3:

Make Academicians submit anonymously, like everyone else. Then we'll see whether the ironists stand out from the genuinely incompetent, the truly disturbed, or the actual 6-year-olds.

But I think the real problem is the way those academicians tasked with organising each room decide on their theme after all the submissions are in. For example, this year one room, curated by the sisters Jane and Louise Wilson RA², "showcases work exploring light and time". So, OK, I'm not sure which room this was because, well, it could have been any of them, really, couldn't it? But I'm sure Jane and Louise had a really good look at the shortlisted works (my own distinguished contributions included) and picked out those that best met, kinda sorta, whatever it was they had in mind. Ditto all the other "curated" rooms. I wonder, though: is there a pecking order, so that the more junior RA curators only get to pick through the leftovers, hoping to find enough arguable matches for their putative themes? A certain amount of barrel-scraping must surely ensue, resulting in the rejection of much excellent work (my own distinguished contributions included) that doesn't happen to fit? It would explain a lot. Which brings me to Solution 4:

If you're going to theme rooms, then why not decide and declare the themes upfront, before the submissions come in? It can only improve the quality of the end result. You want "work exploring light and time"? We got work exploring light and time! And thank you for sparing us the not inconsiderable expense of submitting, framing, delivering, and then taking back home our works exploring various other themes we happened to find more interesting.

Proof of the solid sense of my proposed solutions came when, en route to a restorative cup of tea and a lengthy chat we stumbled into an oasis. At the top of some stairs we came upon a small room, containing just five works, some enormous and immersive panoramic colour photographs in the Düsseldorf mode of Andreas Gursky or Thomas Struth, each occupying a wall, and numbered 1574 to 1578. It was beautiful to see work of such obvious, stand-out quality so sympathetically displayed. One in particular – no. 1576, some extraordinary graffiti on a dark wall – had me completely hooked. When I looked it up it turned out to be by honorary RA and favourite film-maker Wim Wenders. In fact, all five photographs were by Wenders. Compared to the fairground chaos of the main rooms it was a haven of concentrated, contemplative calm, well worth the price of admission.

"Deep in the Railroad Tunnel #2, Wuppertal", by Wim Wenders
(183 x 453 cm i.e. BIG)

1. But born, apparently, Humphrey Anthony Erdeswick Butler-Bowdon. No comment.

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