Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2011 offers wide-angle view of British art

By Mark Sheerin | 08 June 2011
Colour photo of a gallery wall hung with many paintings 'salon-style'
Installation view of Gallery III
© John Bodkin
Exhibition: Summer Exhibition 2011, Royal Academy of Arts, London, until August 15 2011

The floor-to-ceiling arrangement in Gallery III is so traditional it is like stepping into a painting itself. But there is also something very contemporary about the cluttered style of hanging work in which your eyes surf from one painting to the next.

“In a salon hang everyone is frightened of being skied,” says Christopher Le Brun at the press launch. “However, what this demonstrated is a lot of contemporary painting might even look better skied.”

The Summer Show co-ordinator may have a point. Monumental abstract paintings by Gillian Ayres, Albert Irvin and Jennifer Durrant brighten up the room almost as much as the skylight.

And the room has nothing if not dynamics. Realist landscapes by Ken Howard occupy a plum spot in the middle of another wall. These bring to mind the crowded railings of nearby Green Park during the weekend art market, albeit in the best, most exhuberant way.

A colourful abstract painting with pinks, brown and blue
Gary Hume RA, The Cradle (2011)© Gary Hume. Photograph: Steve White
But the return to a salon hang is not the only point of interest at this year’s show. One other gallery is a white cube space with works by Tracey Emin, Michael Landy and Gary Hume - artists who may seem at odds with tradition, but all have the letters RA after their name.

This room was curated by Michael Craig-Martin, who was keen to show the Academy has had 40% of its members elected during the past ten years. His own work here is perhaps a comment on this procedure, a gate with the word fate across it, closed not bolted.

Another surprise is the room of photography with large scale colour works as far from the perjorative stereotypes of Sunday painting as can be. Although should you want to see miniature oil paintings of punnets of fruit and suchlike, those too are in the show.

This all adds up to a richer understanding of artistic life in Britain. It’s an ecosystem where a fiery Keith Tyson work on aluminium might somehow need the cute woodcut of a hedgehog, where both Mark Lawson and a vicar can turn up to the press launch.

There is surely nowhere else you can find the so-called old guard showing alongside so many figures from the vanguard. So the Summer Exhibition still offers a fresh perspective, not bad for a 243-year old format.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday). Admission £4-£10. Book online.

Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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