Issue Number: 107
The theme of the Summer Exhibition this year is ‘Raw’. Stephen Chambers RA, the co-ordinator, tells Richard Cork what rawness in art means to him and how it has influenced the look of the show. He and Fiona Rae RA comment on the artists they have invited to exhibit.
Way back in the bad old days, the genteel organisers of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition would have been horrified by the word ‘raw’. ‘There was a varnishing day for a reason,’ says the show’s art co-ordinator Stephen Chambers RA. The artists liked to see polished presentation. But now, ten years into the 21st century, ‘raw’ has been adopted as the exhibition’s overall theme. And, as Chambers tells me with a subversive grin: ‘If you hear the word “raw” spoken out loud, it can have more than one meaning.’
Who was responsible for dreaming up this provocative theme? ‘It was my idea,’ admits Chambers. ‘There was a schism dividing the Summer Exhibition Committee, so I threw in this word from the top of my head.’ But ‘raw’ also reflects Chambers’ determination to ‘push the exhibition in curious directions. I am often thinking about how a work of art is greater than the sum of its parts – sackcloth and muddy pigments – so I am interested when the humble ingredients of art are undisguised. I was brought in as the art co-ordinator at quite a late date, and usually there are three. I don’t know why I am the only organiser this year, but it suits me. I am the laird of my own fiefdom in my studio, so I am happy acting as a benign-ish autocrat at the Royal Academy, too.’
Eager to explore the meaning of ‘raw’ further, I ask Chambers why he likes this abrasive word so much. ‘Art can be rugged. Paint is essentially coloured mud spread across cloth, and sculpture is made of stuff. When you look at the work sent in to the RA Summer Exhibition from all over the country – the good, the bad and the ugly – ‘raw’ is there. It’s fresh, new, visceral and affirmative. Some of it is fairly scary, too.’ Raw is clearly a theme that has caught the public’s imagination, attracting a healthy number of submissions this year – 11,000.
Chambers also relishes what he calls ‘the hand-made element in art. I’ve got a Goya print at home, of a school teacher transformed into a donkey with big ears. It’s a sublime drawing, but you can see the artist’s fingerprint where he has pushed the plate into the etching acid. I also respond to vulnerability, or risk-taking in artists.’
Why, I wonder, does Chambers respond to what he sees as vulnerable work? ‘Because it reveals soul,’ he says. ‘I’m fascinated by artists who are mavericks, people who don’t play by the rules but plough their own furrows. They’re not followers: they pursue their own curiosity. A lot of good art is made from the “what ifs” and the “let’s sees”.’
This preoccupation with rawness enlivens the 2010 Summer Exhibition in many ways. ‘The painter Fiona Rae RA, who is curating one of the galleries in the show, has set out to create what I see as a self-portrait through the works she chooses,’ says Chambers. ‘The majority of the work is painting and a consistent theme is the evident brushmark. The ingredients with which these works are made are very apparent – there is a painterliness that runs through them and this is a reflection of the way she makes work. It feels like a very personal selection of artists whom she feels strongly about.’
Chambers approves warmly of the idea behind Rae’s selection: ‘It exposes you. It’s more confessional to say, “I like this” because you reveal a lot about yourself – it’s an affirmative statement, candid, and I think that’s exciting.’
He is also fascinated by the ambition behind David Chipperfield RA’s co-ordination of the Architecture Room. ‘Chipperfield told me that he is more interested in building materials and how projects begin, rather than in the glossy side of architecture. His room will contain fewer finished presentations and more drawings done on the back of envelopes, concentrating on the creative origins of work rather than outcomes. The architecture display is being moved into a bigger gallery where we usually show sculpture.’
Why? Chambers gives me another heretical grin. ‘Partly to disrupt visitors’ expectations, and partly to open up the sight lines from the central octagon gallery. We will be able to look down to the big wall at the far end of the large main gallery, where Gillian Ayres RA will be showing her new large-scale paintings. They are signature pieces – brightly coloured, emblematic abstract forms (page 7). Filling that wall with them is a big statement from an artist who is 80 this year – very strong, in-your-face and raw.’
This year, Chambers has also introduced a special focus on artists’ books. ‘I’ll take the flak on this,’ he says defiantly. ‘It’s my idea: I’m familiar with the frustrations of showing them – they are difficult to exhibit and handle.’ So how will the artists’ books be shown at the RA? ‘They will either be in display cases or on glazed tables, with the books open at specific pages and more available to view online. There has been a big response in submissions for the show, perhaps because books have multiple possibilities. Ron King, for example, has sent in a book made out of a log.’
Finally, we turn to the unusually large number of artists included in the memorial displays this year. ‘Sadly, eight Academicians have died in the past year, so we are opening up the entire suite of historic Fine Rooms in Burlington House to have a celebratory display of their work. It is an extension of the Summer Exhibition,’ Chambers explains. The artists are landscape painters Freddie Gore and Donald Hamilton Fraser, Craigie Aitchison, Flavia Irwin, John Craxton and Michael Kidner, the architect Jim Cadbury-Brown and the sculptor Barry Flanagan.
A small sculpture of an elephant by Flanagan will be on display in the Fine Rooms and the blinds will be open, giving a view to the Annenberg courtyard. ‘You will be able to look down from his elephant and see, through the windows, his bronze hares leaping across the courtyard below.’
In the memorial display, the ‘raw’ theme will continue above all in the final works painted by Michael Kidner. ‘He was making them right up to the end,’ says Chambers admiringly, ‘and they were still wet on the walls when he died.’
Summer Exhibition Main Galleries and John Madejski Fine Rooms, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 020 7300 8000, www.royalacademy.org.uk, 14 June–22 Aug. Sponsored by Insight Investment. An iPhone application to accompany the show, with a room guide and video interviews with several exhibitors, is also available. See www.royalacademy.org.uk/summerexhibition