A FRENZY OF FLASHBULBS greeted the ubiquitous UK television host and magazine cover girl Alexa Chung as she posed in front of a gargantuan sculpture of a rabbit, made by the late sculptor Barry Flanagan, in the courtyard of London’s Royal Academy. So began the Summer Exhibition Preview Party on Wednesday, the headline-hitting bash that kicked off the largest open submission contemporary art exhibition in the world––now in its 242nd year. A throng of wealthy, well-groomed attendees flooded the Academy rooms, which were adorned with over 1,200 works, most for sale.
Paul Stewart, son of the legendary racing driver Jackie Stewart, was among the affluent collectors on the hunt for a bargain. His hopes of bagging a Sean Scully painting on display, however, were dashed after discovering that Outside In (Yellow) by the Irish artist was unavailable. “I have a painting of his dating from the early 1980s,” Stewart said. Over his shoulder, the new UK home secretary, Theresa May, was seen darting through the crowd while Chung conversed with her father, graphic designer Philip Chung. “I’ve bought two works from previous RA Summer exhibitions,” Chung fille explained, adding that she was now keen on a top-notch George Condo piece, The Butcher, the Maid and the Master of the House.
A fellow social butterfly, British model Poppy Delevigne, swooned over a vibrant silk screen by John Hoyland. Other partygoers included Duran Duran member Nick Rhodes, who singled out Sarah R. Key’s painting Jonas as a Young Fox. “I collect Surrealist works and graffiti art,” noted the British musician. Opinion on the floor was wildly divided about the art on view, but not everyone was concentrating on the exhibition. “Look at the face-lifts. You come here for the art and you end up marveling at the plastic surgery,” one attendee quipped. A lavish seafood stand swamped by hungry guests was also a talking point.
At the postpreview dinner, Tracey Emin, with her Royal Academician medal pinned proudly on her waist, got into the swing of things, toasting “Honor and glory to the next exhibition!” Emin cochaired the gala with the British accessory designer Anya Hindmarch, prompting the Brit artist to declare that “it’s fantastic that two women are holding a feast at the RA––and we don’t have beards.” Emin gallantly pointed out that all proceeds raised from the ticket and art sales provide income for the Academy’s self-funded Exhibitions and Schools program.
Over a meal of salmon in sea salt crust and roast fillet of beef, the air was thick with talk of whether the recent Art HK fair posed a serious threat to Art Basel. London dealer Pilar Corrias in particular waxed lyrical about the Asian fair where she had a booth. Artists, meanwhile, were out in force, with Grayson Perry, Richard Wilson, Polly Morgan, and Mat Collishaw huddled around a single table. Collishaw was engaged in intense discussions with Harry Blain, the dealer who recently left London’s Haunch of Venison gallery. Blain plans to open a new space in Mayfair in the next year with Graham Southern, another ex–Haunch of Venison stalwart. (Collishaw, incidentally, is part of the HoV stable.)
As the supper crowd thinned out, artist Jonathan Yeo perked up the proceedings with the announcement that his elephant sculpture Gerald, included in the “Elephant Parade” series made up of 250 garish Dumboesque creations dotted around central London, has been removed from the capital’s landmark Selfridges store. The reason? “Leaf” details used to decorate Gerald’s feet were made up of pornographic imagery, a saucy Yeo motif that sent shock waves through the shoppers’ paradise. There were sighs of relief all round when news reached the table that Yeo’s risqué elephant is now set to go on show at the Chinawhite nightclub in Fitzrovia.