It strikes me, the moment he says it, as the perfect metaphor for the tameless spirit of contemporary art: “I’m making a menagerie in the Central Hall of the Royal Academy.”
I’m talking with the Scottish painter Jock McFadyen RA, the overall co-ordinator of this year’s Summer Exhibition, about his vision for the 251st installment of the sprawling spectacle that celebrates the preoccupations and proficiencies of today’s artists. Paying homage to mankind’s ancient instinct to draw animals on the walls of caves, McFadyen’s menagerie showcases images and sculptures of creatures, both real and imaginary, by artists as diverse in temperament and technique as Charles Avery, painter Humphrey Ocean RA, photographers Tom Hunter and Karen Knorr, and sculptor Kenny Hunter.
The ambition is motivated by an eco-spirit that echoes across the show. A room curated by architect Spencer de Grey RA, for example, is invigorated by concerns about sustainability – how architects balance creativity and experimentation with respect for achieving a zero-sum impact on the world’s vulnerable environment. Another member of the ten-strong Selection Committee, Scottish painter and printmaker Barbara Rae RA, had her thinking about the exhibition stimulated by her recent expeditions to the endangered icescapes of the Arctic. As well as an annual extravaganza of imagination, there is a clear sense that this is a serious show staged by serious artists.
“My starting point”, McFadyen tells me of the broader theme that he hopes will unite into a harmonious whole the dozen rooms and around 1,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, videos, photographs and architectural maquettes selected and invited for display in this year’s Summer Exhibition, “is art that describes the world today”. That’s not to say, he is quick to clarify, that literal or figurative descriptiveness is essential for selection to the show. “I’m as interested in the way Mondrian captures the energy of New York in Broadway Boogie Woogie”, he continues, “as I am in any landscape or portrait”. McFadyen’s aim is to prioritise work that resonates with the energy of the real world and to celebrate in particular, he says, “artists who look out of their windows, rather than ones who close the curtains”.
Such attentiveness to the contours of existence has always been key to McFadyen’s work, which is the subject of a new RA monograph published this summer. What strikes you first about the painting of his own that he has chosen to show in this year’s Summer Exhibition, Poor Mother, is the sheer delight it takes in magicking from the alchemy of oil and linen the uncanny feeling of being alive in the universe.
There’s an almost mystical heat that vibrates from the oversized orange orb that pulses in the upper right of this canvas. But is that a sun or a moon? And that interloping posse of four-legged beasts, fresh from the menagerie of the artist’s mind and silhouetted by the silvery haze of an indeterminate sky – are they staring back at us or towards the ramshackle structures, hoisted on stilts, that teeter in the shallows? Are they ibex? Or antelope? Someone must know. But this isn’t really a painting, or indeed an exhibition, about the particularities of a specific here-and-now, so much as it is about what it means to be more generally – about the strangeness of the soul’s strandedness in the world as only the power and poignancy of art can capture it.