Midsummer is a time when I generally head to London for exhibitions including, typically, the BP Portrait Award and the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. The first of these is one I dive into with some well-founded enthusiasm but then the other I approach with a certain amount of trepidation; two very different responses as they can provide a very different sense of where art is going.
This year, the standard at the BP was above average and I was left feeling satisfied as a painter who loves portraiture and seeks inspiration for my own painting process. If I have one criticism (and my thoughts on this were echoed by my teenage daughter, a far more prolific and gifted portrait artist than I) it was that you are left wondering “why?” It’s as though art has lost its substance, even within this domain, which used to be so much more loaded with meaning, symbolism, narrative…a story to tell. Most of the inspiration for these works, as described in the small print, seemed to vacillate between wanting to paint like some other, historic, painter’s style or a desire to paint the very commonplace, such as a person stood in their kitchen, for instance, because “that’s where I tend to think of them being” (although I was left wondering why this was meant to be of interest to anyone else). One artist had even painted the spot on their girlfriend’s neck (that’s it…no face); and much of the subject matter smacks of “I painted it because it was there”, which feels like a desperate case of backlash, some sort of kick-back against times when more important-seeming or meaningful things were painted. Are we so desperate to shed all meaning, all need for narrative, that we seek to annihilate it (my daughter filled me in with an anecdote about a talented student turned down from a prestigious painting school because she confessed an ambition to produce deeply meaningful and symbolic artworks at her interview…)? Whilst the standard was pretty high and these people clearly knew how to wield a brush, you were left wondering whether we are just repeating and repeating the empty shell of the painting style of some golden era; an outward display of skill that no longer has any stuffing left in it. Its as though we believe we have nothing left to say for ourselves, no reason to do new art, no fresh messages or higher purpose to convey and no one listening if we do (that same leaden feeling that has had me taking the longest hiatus from painting, this year, of my entire art career).
Am I not the only one left wondering whether there is any more reason left to paint, or any more themes to explore by doing it? Where the subject is the human being, we seem to have run out of gas and trundled almost to a halt. The phrase that came to mind (as I compared what I had just seen with the historic collection upstairs in the same gallery) was, are we breaking new territory any more or are we just breaking hearts (or ourselves) into very small pieces. My rule of thumb is always “would I want this hanging on a wall where I spend any time?” and the answer is so often “no”. There is always that problem with portraiture – does anyone else want to see a stranger peering down at them from their wall; and surely not unless they, or the composition, are a joy to look at. There is an absence of beauty in much (not all) of this modern work, being so fixated as it is upon the kind or open-pored realism that has you flinching at the magnified scrutiny of humanity of it all, like looking in the flip side of the shaving mirror when you wake up in the morning. Has art just become a competition in which you either get to choose the task of trying to shock people at all costs (one camp of thought) or sign-up for a sort of olympic sport of realising high-magnification realism with a paint brush like you are trying to become more camera-like than a camera? Has it all become about showing off what you can do (in other words, all about the artist), not actually conveying something of use to other beings (those most uplifting things we all have in common and which art used to celebrate)? Where are its higher aims; what happened to love and beauty; where’s the light, the optimism? This was all rather somber food for thought as we headed on to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy.
(My “pick” of the BP Award; paintings where I could appreciate the painting skill and, in some cases, the composition; though a narrative was generally missing).
There at the RA, I was faced with the usual mad mixture of all-sorts and everything, which can feel like the selection committee were having a drinks party while the conveyor-belt of entries was passed though and started to lose the use of their eyes long before the end. Yes, we found some highlights (and I include them in this post), even some gems…but many other pieces had us groaning out loud wondering how they had claimed wall space from many thousands of other artists that will have been rejected (as many as 10,500, I read in one article…) Faced with a giant leprechaun that looks like an enlarged photocopy of a felt-pen drawing by a five-year old on one of the major walls, I could only drop my head in my hands and grunt. The 17 year-old with me faired less well; she came here for inspiration but said she wanted to cry and looked like she might, though it strengthened her decision to not take her art any further at uni and to go after a “proper job” using the left half of her brain. The art world is as incomprehensible to her as it is to me these days; a serious case of emperor’s new clothes and everyone too afraid to be the one to break the news to the emperor (whoever “he” is) that there’s a load of cr*p hanging on some very auspicious public walls. I find it hard to go to these things and keep the cork in my mouth. One year, I came with a friend who was so embarrassed by my vocal outbursts and unchained opinions that she kept a few strides away from me until we got to the end…but I always seem to find others stood in similar bewilderment and who laugh their relief to hear someone else, at least, prepared to say what they think. I splutter a reaction, they turn around and, as we lock eyes, it’s as though the tension melts out of them as they are no longer forced to maintain the pretence at considering the ridiculous as though it is worthy of deepest thought. On the back of these impromptu trysts, I’ve enjoyed some really funny and enjoyable conversations with complete strangers every year for half a decade, courtesy of the RA selection committee (thank you, at least, for that). It leaves me no further ahead with my conundrum about what art is really “for” these days or where it is heading; what do artists want to say, who really cares, is it all a load of piffle, has the best stuff already been done (or can be done by a camera) and where does that leave me as an artist?
Indeed, I find, at the Summer Exhibition, that it is largely the prints and photography that I can relate to because at least they seem to seek to convey something beyond the poinless or incomprehensibly narcissistic; an atmosphere, perhaps, or something beautifully organic, whilst claiming some of the playfulness that used to be the domain of the painter. There is a small room – the Weston Room – that always used to be hung from floor to ceiling with a cacophony of smaller paintings; you know, the kind you could actually imagine in your house adding meaning and beauty to a real living wall. A couple of years ago, they shifted all that stuff out of there under the excuse they wanted to offer it more space, to let it flourish as part of the main exhibition but it feels more like a case of being swept into a small corner to be lost in the mess (and, no doubt, as painters of that ilk die-off, phased out altogether…). Meanwhile the Weston Room, this year, was offering a vintage-looking video of naked women doing something wierd though probably terribly avant-garde and which had people smirking and walking away again before it even got to the end. We did likewise and found more enjoyment in the architecture section where, at least, we got a sense of something at once creative, relatable and forward-thinking going on. There feels like there is still life blood left in architecture and photography whilst painting feels like it has been left to bleed itself dry.
(These are my personal highlights at the Summer Exhibition…mostly prints and photography with painting hardly represented.)
We had allocated two and a half hours for this part of our day; in fact, we spent less than an hour at the RA before heading back across town to catch an earlier train. I’m glad we made our trip: the Portrait Gallery (its fixed collection too) made it worth the while; and the Summer Show? I suspect we may give that a breather for the next few years since even my daughter has lost all enthusiasm for it (and I had mainly kept going there just for her). Speaking of which, my own enthusiasm to paint still waxes and wains but at least I am left knowing what feels most vacuous about modern art…so I can, at least, aim to avoid replicating that should I pick up my brushes once more, come the autumn.
For me (just so you know what I’m talking about), the bewilderingly low points of the Summer Exhibition looked like these; just some of the artworks that gained a much sought-after spot on those highly prestigious walls!