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2018 In the Shadow of Brexit

The 2018 Summer Exhibition—the 250th—was indivisible from its coordinator, Grayson Perry (Fig. 1). There have been plenty of notable coordinators in the recent past, not least the artist and teacher Michael Craig-Martin in 2015, whose approach, dominated by brightly coloured walls, greatly influenced Perry. But arguably none has developed such a clearly expressed theory of the Exhibition in relation to the wider picture of British public life. It was perhaps an inevitable consequence of inviting a figure, who is an artist first but increasingly renowned, in Britain at least, as a cultural commentator—the maker of television series focusing on taste, class, identity, and masculinity.

Much about Perry’s show was notable, including the show-stopping but rather overblown works he commissioned from Anish Kapoor and Joana Vasconcelos, in the Annenberg Courtyard and Gallery I respectively, and the sprawling, fragmented presence of the show, taking place in some of the main galleries, but with prints in the Sackler Galleries and a discrete “Room of Fun” in the McCauley Gallery in the Royal Academy’s newly restored Burlington Gardens building. But its outstanding characteristic was as a form of social analysis as much as an art show, in which the Summer Exhibition had become its own subject. Gallery III, always the centrepiece of the show, was the only space curated by Perry alone, and it was there that his personality was most palpable, his ideas most distilled: in the “Great Room” of exhibitions past, the Summer Exhibition itself had become a Grayson Perry artwork (Fig. 2).

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The Academy President Christopher Le Brun made clear that Perry was brought on board not just for his aesthetic judgement (what Le Brun calls his “refreshingly broad and open-minded interests in the fine and applied arts”) but also for his “fascination with the notion of taste—not least the changing tastes over the many decades of the Exhibition”, which marked him out as “the obvious choice” for the 250th anniversary show.1 Perry embraced the Exhibition as “one of the great glories of the Royal Academy, a chaotic swirling anachronism in a contemporary art world often characterised these days by a prim intellectual orderliness”.2 He wrote of its uniqueness in pitching major artists and architects together with “Joe and Joanna Bloggs from Bridlington who have plugged away in their studios for decades and never made the big time”.3 He clearly took pleasure in the fact that the Summer Exhibition is “huge and baggy, loved and loathed, serious and farcical” and played up these qualities in his Gallery III hang.4 With Craig-Martin’s 2015 Exhibition in mind, the room was painted an acid yellow—a colour to prompt winces from traditionalists—and it was packed with pictures. Not as many as in the Great Room at Somerset House in 1789, when there were 353 listed, but still a vast number: 269.

Perry had identified two “uplifting” themes in the works he had chosen along with his fellow Committee members when whittling down the number from close to 20,000 works to 1,351: “humour and strong colour”.5 And humour was present in his approach to the hang, too. “The temptation to juxtapose works for comic or cod-political effect is just too tempting for me,” he wrote. “Who can resist hanging a four-metre wiggly Pink Panther next to a staid portrait of [British far-right politician] Nigel Farage over where the President and dignitaries sit at the very grand white tie Annual Dinner? Not me!”6 On the other side of the Farage portrait was a cartoonish painting of a man having a rod inserted into his penis. Above it was an ambiguous image, which has been interpreted as a figure puking into a bucket. This cluster was just one in a series of raucous collisions throughout Gallery III. Perry played on the divided politics and febrile atmosphere of post-Brexit referendum Britain. He placed Mick Dea’s William Joyce and Friends, a painting of Oswald Mosley with blackshirts including Joyce, known as Lord Haw Haw, next to Sarah Ball’s sensitive portrait of a black woman. He juxtaposed Banksy’s reinterpretation of a United Kingdom Independence Party referendum poster, using a heart-shaped balloon to convert “Vote Leave” into “Vote Love”, with Scream by Linda Sofie Jansson, in which a white woman surrounded by figures in niqabs shrieks, her eyes manically wide, her hands at the side of her face, with fingers tensely extended. When asked about his inclusion of the latter work in an interview, Perry stated that he:

didn’t quite know what to think of it at first. I thought it was borderline offensive, but when you put it next to the Banksy, it talks about a diversity of voices and of political opinions. You can’t just put up work you agree with.7

Throughout the hang, one saw images that were surely similarly selected for their content, however badly delivered, rather than their technical execution or aesthetic quality. There were numerous unself-consciously “bad” paintings: Peter Ingram’s clumsy and quaint British image of an antique shop and hoisted union flag, called Selling England by the Pound; Len Gray’s Good Morning Mr Corbyn—How Are the Speed Trials Going?, a weak comic reference to Courbet’s famous painting featuring the current Labour Party leader in an upended Meccano car on a beach, surrounded by picture-postcard cartoon figures; and Ian Ryan’s feeble art gag, where he riffs on the gridded form of the Battenberg cake in mockery of abstraction. But it was the “exuberance and irreverence” of the “send-in” artworks that Perry seems to have most relished selecting, especially when he could place them next to the “muddier output of the some of the [Royal Academicians]”. He christened the Academicians’ works “the fatbergs”, after the masses of congealed fat and non-biodegradable matter found in sewers, because they “blocked the process of hanging a fresh and uplifting show”. Though he also admitted he used them to provide relief amid “uproarious outpourings of the popular imagination”, it is clear from his essay that he struggled with some of the RAs’ behaviour. “The committee and the staff,” he wrote, “spend more emotional energy on a few touchy prima donnas than they do on the rest of the members and send-ins put together.” He told these household names not to submit their works, if they could not handle the “democratic rough and tumble” of the Exhibition.8

And so, for all the novelty present in Perry’s show—those ultra-exuberant colours, the conscious aim to capture a snapshot of a nation at a particular moment through its art, its entry into a newly expanded building—the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition was still subject to the same “petty power-plays” as Perry called them, that have often been present throughout its long history. On this occasion, it did not result in any major artists removing their works from the show, as it did in 1784 when Thomas Gainsborough was denied in his request to hang a painting at his desired height. But it represents a deeply held feeling of Perry’s: that the Summer Exhibition is special precisely because it is “one of the least elitist of annual cultural events”.9 And no fatberg was going to block his path to expressing it.

  1. Christopher Le Brun, “President’s Foreword”, in Grayson Perry (ed.), 250th Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2018 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2018), 7.↩︎

  2. Christopher Le Brun, “President’s Foreword”, in Grayson Perry (ed.), 250th Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2018 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2018), 7.↩︎

  3. Christopher Le Brun, “President’s Foreword”, in Grayson Perry (ed.), 250th Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2018 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2018), 7.↩︎

  4. Grayson Perry, “The 250th Summer Exhibition”, in Grayson Perry (ed.), 250th Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2018 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2018), 11.↩︎

  5. Perry, “The 250th Summer Exhibition”, 250th Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2018, 25.↩︎

  6. Perry, “The 250th Summer Exhibition”, 250th Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2018, 25↩︎

  7. Miranda Sawyer, “Grayson Perry: ‘RAs have to fight it out with Joe Bloggs—that’s what’s great about it’”, The Guardian, 3 June 2018, (accessed 5 July 2018).↩︎

  8. Perry, “The 250th Summer Exhibition”, 250th Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2018, 26.↩︎

  9. Perry, “The 250th Summer Exhibition”, 250th Summer Exhibition Illustrated 2018, 29.↩︎

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