The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is easy prey for the critics. As far back as 1794, only 26 years after the first exhibition had opened to display works by ‘all Artists of distinguished merit’ disillusionment had set in. The Morning Post attacked it for descending ‘into a parade of the hackneyed and incompetent amongst the little dirty paltry aristocracy of the Royal Academy.’
More recently critics reported being filled ‘with a profound melancholy and disgust’ or dismissed it as the ‘largest festival of bad art in Europe.’
None of this deterred Mereliis Rinne, 32, who walked all the way from Dalston with her canvas or Mary Barnes, 70-plus from Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire. They joined the hundreds who carried their paintings and sculptures across the cobbles of the Royal Academy courtyard a few week’s ago to offer their work for the show which opens next week/tomorrow (June 13 - August 30). Nor did it daunt a young Eileen Cooper, who as a student in the 70s, had her first work accepted and hung in the main gallery.
This year she is the coordinator of the hanging committee, which includes Academicians, Ann Christopher, Fiona Rae and Farshic Moussavi, who is curating the architecture section. “All amazing women,” says Cooper. “Not that we are marketing it as such. It is just unusual for the RA to be so female centred.” Yinka Sonibare alongside RA stalwarts Gus Cumins and Bill Jacklin redress the balance.
“I believe in the summer show,” she says. “What I really love and value about it is that if your work gets selected you will be on the wall next to a Ken Howard or Anselm Kiefer or a Barbara Rae.
“The show’s main purpose is to raise money for the RA schools programme which does not receive any government funding so I think it is churlish to be negative about something that supports the next generation.”
She admits it is hard to win the plaudits of the critics, but, says, a little tartly in her still-broad Derbyshire tones: “Artists like a challenge so I don’t see why critics won’t take the challenge too.”
So what can the 200,000-plus visitors to the 2017 exhibition expect? “We couldn’t think of one slogan to sum it up, which is a real drawback,” she admits. “Our aim is to bring something fresh to the show by finding emerging talent and recruiting more artists from countries as disparate as Congo, Peru, Spain and India as well as Turkey and Kurdistan.
“We had to spread the word and get the people who might not send in but whose work we have noticed.”
The result was 12,000 digital entries which were narrowed down by the committee over one ‘surreal’ week in March to between two to 2,500 and then reduced in one eye - watering day to the 1,200 or so which will make up this year’s show.
It is these amateurs who give the show its singularity and confuse the critics who perhaps are looking for something more ‘professional’ and more structured.
“I think the amateur is a difficult term,” protests Cooper, who is a painter and printmaker as well as the first female Keeper of the RA Schools. “There are some who have been Sunday painters since they retired, others might be teachers or academics who will be working at quite a high level and there are a lot of people, maybe a milkman or a bank clerk, for whom art is very precious but who don’t make a living as an artist.
“Then there are the graduates. It’s harder and harder for them to find a studio and have the opportunities to show their work.”
She argues that that the exhibition, which is the oldest open-submission show in the world, is a unique opportunity for people to be included who don’t fit into the mainstream, but often narrow, gallery idea of what contemporary art is.
“It is very liberating for them and for the possible buyer there is the reassurance that the works have been selected by the artists on the committee which might well be different to those preferred by a dealer,” says Cooper. “Furthermore it is a good place to buy because the commission is lower than most galleries - 30 per cent compared with, often, 50 per cent.”
Her plan is to mix all the works together. This year, as well as the Academicians who are always encouraged to show - and sell - in support of the schools, there will be three film makers, including a room for a three-screen installation by Isaac Julien, photography by Gilbert and George, recently appointed Academicians and the first duo to appear, as well as a performance by recent RA school graduate Alana Francis. “Very special,” says Cooper. “She opens herself up massively. You’ll find it very moving.”
Gallery Three - the main space - is the biggest challenge for any curator because the floor is taken over by a bar to quench the thirst of networkers and sponsors and that leaves no room to stage sculpture as a centre piece.
“It is really hard to hang,” she admits. “The problem is that you have to have lots of different types of work together. Some fit well together, others, well, it can be difficult.
“We have a very beautiful, very large, Sean Scully and lots of work by Olwyn Bowey one of our academicians whose work is all about keen observation of the house where she lives. They’re wonderful, rugged, fabulously observed, drawings of plants.”
One of the co-curators and major contributor is sculpture Yinka Shonibare and he is every bit as enthusiastic as Cooper to highlight emerging artists.
“The RA does need to find ways of renewing itself,” he says. “It is a very well established institution but it’s not entirely great to rely on past glories and it is always good to refresh the organisation.
“Institutions are not easy to break into. You have to go through a number of rituals, ceremonies and all sorts of different levels of initiation rites to get anywhere near these places. There are artists who perhaps who don’t have those opportunities - this is their chance to be seen.”
Shonibare, who is curating two rooms, invited a diverse group to send in their works. One is Abe Odedina, of Nigerian origin,living in Brixton, south London, who paints dashing scenes based on African folk art
“I like the Japanese artist Tomoaki Suzuki,” says Shonibare. “He makes carvings of small figures using traditional Japanese methods and style but in a very contemporary way and Hassan Hajjaj, who isMoroccan-British, and who takes pictures of Muslim women on bikes called Henna Bikers. I like the kind of fun of them.
“These are not the usual works associated with the RA.”
Shonibare himself is displaying a new example of his razzle-dazzle Wing series in the courtyard while inside one of his Hybrid Angels will stand by a re-imagining of the classical sculpture, Venus de Medici, which he has decorated with a ‘a load of patterns.’
Like Cooper he admits the vetting procedure is not entirely rational
“I go by gut instinct,” he says. “The selection is not a definite science. There are artists who are quite good but unfortunately if the judges can’t agree on that work it doesn’t mean it is necessarily no good, it just means the judges didn’t like it.”
Cooper, who is also preparing for an exhibition at Wolfson College, Cambridge, with her distinctive depiction of the female form, admits to one or two ‘sparky discussions’ when it came to the show’s style and content.
She says: “Big areas of debate will continue through out the hang because there is so much work to accommodate and people get quite invested in their rooms. If you say you’ve got to hang this they might say I don’t want it there, or I’ve just got this room hanging beautifully I can’t add anything else. So I think I will be trouble shooting around the galleries.
“It’s wonderful to find work you like and hang it well especially when it is by someone you are discovering. Artists need to show their work and it is fantastic for them to do that here and for me too, it is a great opportunity to use art as a means of communication with a new audience.”
Sadly, the determined Meriliis Rinne and her painting “The Danger of the Pink Cloud” did not make the cut but Mary Barnes did.
“I have been painting for 50 years,” says Mrs Barnes, whose successful entry is a sombre black and work entitled “Alas, Poor Aleppo.” She is just the talented ‘amateur’ Cooper has in mind.
“There is always a huge diversity on show,” says Mrs Barnes, who has sold five paintings over the years. “The fact that anybody can enter is brilliant.”