Mark Hampson: Almost Real Art at the Royal Academy
The Royal Academy of Art is almost the definition of the art establishment. Here, proper art is shown; art by distinguished artists. It is something of a delight that artist Mark Hampson managed to negotiate free run of their library in a two-year residency. Rummaging around the RA archive, Hampson noticed that certain artists who were rivals in real life ended up being on the same shelf due to the proximity of their surnames. Hampson gives them an imagined history, where these artists joined together to form their own art school, thus altering the course of art.
Artists have satirised the Royal Academy for as long as it has been around. Hampson picks up on this tradition by creating retro banners of art societies and unions that have a distinctly Victorian charm. A wooden shop sign for the revered artist Gainsborough declares him a “One Man Band”; a slogan for an art academy is “No Subject Matter”. Subversive but funny, taking a dig without being cruel, the pieces are just the right side of pastiche to make you think that they just might be authentic, or ought to be. They also represent the expertise in making, which does the RA proud.
Hampson has created a mock art character, whose history he inserts into art through a collection of evidential paintings and photos showing his sketchy face made by all sorts of artists and styles. Those pieces are crammed together on one wall, full of references and jokes. The exhibition is housed in a smallish room, and includes some jumbled source material – Victorian adverts and cartoons, some lampooning the RA, and others unintentionally hilarious.
These works are enjoyable and meaningful, and like the best jokes, work because they play on truth. The Royal Academy’s history of art is just a version, and others are possible.