In response to our increasingly widespread disquiet about the state of our planet, the theme of the 254th Royal Academy of Arts (RA) Summer Exhibition, coordinated by the renowned sculptor Alison Wilding RA, is Climate. Not that you’d know from the lead image chosen by the RA to promote the show.
Emblazoned on publicity posters and banners, as well as on the cover of the Summer Show’s price list booklet, is Kathleen Ryan’s sculpture Bad Lemon (Josh). This features a lemon covered in what appears to be mould but which is in fact a trompe l’oeil studding of multiple semi-precious gemstones including jade, onyx, mother of pearl and agate.
It’s an arresting image by Ryan, a New York-based artist who has already shown her gem-studded pieces of fruit internationally as well as at last year’s Liverpool biennial. But it’s also a stretch to identify any climactic connotations in this elegantly entropic riff on the vanitas tradition.
Packing a rather more directly environmental punch is East London artist Scott Brooker’s painting of a looming polar bear forcefully flipping its middle finger/ claw which hangs in Gallery VI, one of the rooms curated by Wilding. This uncompromising, open-submission work, wryly titled Thanks, Man, immediately caught the eye of Wilding and her selection committee of fellow Royal Academicians: Grayson Perry, Conrad Shawcross, Bill Woodrow, Stephen Chambers, Rana Begum, Niall McLaughlin, David Mach and Farshid Moussavi.
According to Wilding it was Conrad Shawcross who on the last day of judging said he thought Brooker’s polar bear should be the show’s lead image. “Conrad came into the room and said he’d had an epiphany and the polar bear should definitely be used as the image for the show. We all unanimously agreed,” she recalls. “Giving the finger is such an immediate, aggressive gesture. The painting addresses the exhibition’s theme and we also felt it would attract the attention of the younger demographic that we are trying to bring in to the Royal Academy, beyond the usual Summer Show audiences.”
However not everyone at the Academy shared the selection committee’s enthusiasm.
“As soon as I took that up with the powers that be I was told very firmly that that wasn’t going to happen, “ Wilding says. And the reason why this esteemed group of Royal Academicians were overruled? Apparently the RA’s management didn’t want to upset the show’s sponsors, global asset managers Insight Investment.
However, the RA says that this is not the case. “The choice of artwork used for promotional activity is led by the RA’s Marketing department and Insight Investment have no influence over this process,” a museum spokesperson says in a statement. “Images of swearing are prohibited for use in advertising on public transport, so the RA would not have been able to use the artwork of Thanks Man by Scott Brooker as the lead image for the Summer Exhibition 2022.”
A spokesperson from Insight Investment adds: “Insight is very proud of our long-term relationship with the RA, with our sponsorship of the Summer Exhibition now running for 16 years. The RA and the Royal Academicians select works for the exhibition including the choice of artworks to be used in promotional activity. As sponsor, we seek no influence over this decision-making process and completely support the creative autonomy of the RA.”
While It may not have made the billboards, Brooker’s finger-flipping bear nonetheless proved its pulling power when, almost as soon as the show opened, it found a buyer for £1,000. “It was almost the first work to sell on the opening night “ Wilding confirms. “It clearly sparked something with everyone who saw it.” Bad Lemon, however, is not available for sale.