This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Royal College of Arts’ (RCA) Secret Show, which has been successfully following the same formula since its inauguration in 1994. The idea behind the show is simple. Professional artists and art graduates alike are asked to donate postcard sized pieces of artwork for the exhibition. Once the week- long exhibition is over, the postcards displayed are available to purchase in a secret sale, effectively a kind of fine art lottery. Registered buyers have the opportunity to purchase up to four original pieces of artwork at the standard rate of £40 each. The only rule is the artist’s identity remains secret until after the postcards have been sold.
This year there were 2,700 individual pieces of art on display, all but 19 of which were sold at the sale raising over £100,000 for the fine art students. All the proceeds from the sale go to the Royal College of Art students and previous artists have included Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry and Gerhard Richter, as well as fashion designers Manolo Blahnik and Sir Paul Smith.
The postcards , arranged in groups of 100, are displayed on a single wall and each assigned an individual display number, for the public’s perusal. On first entering, the wall seems to be covered in indistinguishable squares, but on closer examination, the intricate detail and variety of the work quickly becomes apparent. Though each postcard is a piece of art in its own right, displaying them all together in one room enhances the striking effects of each individual piece.
The range and diversity of artwork on display is overwhelming. Despite artists only being able to submit postcard sized work, every medium and style of art is clear to see. This year’s exhibition had everything from a traditional watercolour of poppies (No.749) to knitted cupcakes attached to card (No.1642) and even a postcard shaped piece of chipboard (No.2347).
The artwork on display reflected a multitude of meanings and messages. There were overtly feminist pieces, highlighting the male dominance of the art world; political postcards that criticised the Labour government and postcards that made reference to popular contemporary artists, such as Damien Hirst and Banksy.
One postcard (No.2401), which just stated in bold multi-coloured print: “The only work I’ll sell this year”, was an ironic reminder of the difficulties of making a living as a professional artist. Postcard No.920 had been cut to the shape of a market-style price tag and coloured luminous green with ‘£40’ written on it, a reference to the selling price of the work.
Grayson Perry, winner of the 2003 Turner prize, and ‘the nation’s favorite transvestite potter’ as one art critic described him, first started displaying work at the secret show three years ago, although he has never actually been to the exhibition.
Perry, who is currently taking a well earned rest from the nation’s press, after launching his highly acclaimed Walthamstow Tapestry exhibition, spoke to Nouse about why he continues to participate in the show, explaining “it is a neat idea and I like the simple discipline of a postcard.”
Although all work submitted must be displayed anonymously, Perry claims that he never attempts to alter his usual way of working, believing that it would be ‘a shame’ for someone to get an example of his work that does not resemble his signature style. Nor does he approach the exhibition with any pre-designed ideas. “Generally I just do a drawing that I would have done anyway in my sketchbook” although he admits that he tends to make the work “a bit more finished looking” before submitting it.
The way the sale of the postcards is conducted gives members of the public the opportunity to buy work by artists who would usually be far out of their price range. “It’s nice that someone can own a piece of mine for a relatively small sum and it is for a good cause.”
Although RCA Secret 2009 has ended, those interested in seeing the exhibition, complete with artists’ names and display numbers, can go online at www.rca.ac.uk/secret.