2010 Rawness and Artists' Books
When Stephen Chambers was asked to be the Summer Exhibition Coordinator for 2010, it was relatively late in the planning process, and the Exhibition’s underlying theme, “Raw”, had already been decided. While Chambers had not conceived of the theme himself, he was happy to take it on and develop it. As he told Richard Cork, who wrote the introduction to the 2010 Summer Illustrated, it reflected his conviction that art is essentially “rugged”, made up of coloured mud, cloth and “stuff”.1 Raw also allowed Chambers to include artists who might be considered “mavericks, people who don’t play by the rules but plough their own furrows.”2 Backed by an “abrasive” theme that privileged edgy, even “scary” approaches to art, Chambers therefore felt able to “push the exhibition in curious directions” that would surprise those expecting to see “old-fashioned gentility” with works that were “fresh, new, visceral and affirmative”.3
Consequently, the submission call encouraged artists to submit work that was “vital”, “adventurous”, “took risks”, and revealed the “rugged” qualities of art. Cork explored this theme in his catalogue essay, highlighting works such as Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture of Crash Willy as one of a series of visual surprises intended to draw the visitor through the galleries and challenge expectations. As Chambers’s said of Shonibare’s sculpture: “This is a pretty big and nutty piece, but fabulous. The driver looks as if he has come out worst from a Wacky Races prang.”4 Another sculpture that embodied the notion of rawness was Richard Wilson’s stacked trio of garden sheds with their precarious sense of balance. Cork also found rawness in the dynamic, expressionist “gesturing” of the abstract paintings hung in Gallery I by Allen Jones, with works by Jeffrey Camp and John Hoyland capturing “an extraordinary sense of energy”. But, for Cork, nothing was more monumentally raw than Anselm Kiefer’s canvas, Einshusse, with its pigment oozing out of pinkish-orange holes down a massive mountain range onto burned-out fields, whose crops he described as resembling “battered victims of war”.5
What Cork failed to discuss in his Introduction was Chambers’ inclusion of artists’ books into the Summer Exhibition. Chambers may not have been involved in the decision to make “raw” the theme for 2010, but displaying a group of these objects in the Large Weston Room could be seen as a maverick act entirely befitting the theme, reflecting the opportunity he had as Coordinator to introduce something unprecedented and distinctive, which might otherwise have been neglected or omitted entirely.
Chambers’ decision to include artists’ books was deeply personal. Although he was elected to the Academy as a printmaker and is best known for his distinctive figurative paintings, Chambers is an accomplished and regular maker of artist books. However, the difficulty for Chambers and other artists’ book producers, is both getting them seen—and then how they are seen. Not only are they frequently categorised as illustrated books rather than as a distinctive work of art, but their very nature makes them difficult to display. As books they need to be handled, their pages need to be turned, their narratives read, and yet this makes it difficult when artists want the value of the artwork to be recognised as well. In exhibitions, where their visual, artistic qualities might be best celebrated, touching artworks is discouraged.
The very diversity of the Summer Exhibition, where architectural models are displayed alongside prints, paintings, photographs, sculptures, and videos therefore provided the perfect opportunity to promote these works, while Chambers’ position as Coordinator circumvented any problems in getting them included. As well as his own artist book entry, he invited four other artists: John Dilnot, Ron King, Ken Campbell, and Les Bicknell, to be part of the Exhibition without having to submit to the usual selection process. For the artists, this was a unique and wonderful opportunity to have their work displayed in a very public art context, and for Chambers, this was a chance to celebrate the rawness of an art form that is usually relegated to the condition of craft or book publishing and often considered old-fashioned.
With the books displayed in glass-topped cabinets, the interaction of visitors with the works was unfortunately limited (Fig. 1). They couldn’t be held, their pages couldn’t be turned over or pulled out, and their narrative could only partially be seen. But for Chambers, this is part of an artists’ book’s attraction and intrigue. Unlike his prints and paintings, his books are meant to keep something back, never able to be seen in their entirety but rather unfolding through time like a video. He sees artists’ books as soliloquies: coy objects that are intentionally private, personal, and idiosyncratic, never revealing the whole but only ever a part of the whole. Bicknell has also described being drawn to these qualities, creating books that reflect his interest in the seen and unseen, their concertina-like construction enabling the information they contain to be both revealed and concealed.6
While the limitations of their display meant that the five artists’ books couldn’t be appreciated as originally intended, the wider context of the Summer Exhibition certainly accomplished Chambers’ desire to provide new perspectives on their visual qualities. The quality of John Dilnot’s and Ken Campbell’s printmaking became all the more evident when surrounded by the prints that filled the Large Weston Room that year. Similarly, Ron King’s Woodworm Book (Logbook No.10), part of a series begun in 1995 to explore the possibility of sawing a log into book pages that could then be reassembled into a log again, took on a distinctly sculptural dimension when seen near David Nash’s sculptures (Fig. 2).
Although the majority of those visiting the Summer Exhibition in 2010 would have walked past and overlooked this small display cabinet and its contents, for Chambers this was one of the true sites of “rawness” in the show: five objects that were deliberately tactile, surprising, and made by artists who resolutely “ploughed their own furrows”.
Richard Cork, “Introduction”, in Stephen Chambers (ed.), Royal Academy Illustrated 2010 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2010), 8.↩︎
Cork, “Introduction”, 8.↩︎
Cork, “Introduction”, 8.↩︎
Cork, “Introduction”, 8.↩︎
Cork, “Introduction”, 11.↩︎
Les Bicknell, blog profile, https://www.blogger.com/profile/03279659331266522263.↩︎
Thematic categories: abstract art, artists’ books, Coordinators of Exhibition, curation of exhibition and displays, Curators, modernisation of Summer Exhibition, neo-expressionism, postmodernism, prints, reproduction of paintings, sculpture