Now open for its 250th consecutive year, the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts still fills its walls in the Salon-style of the late 18th century. Each room is crammed from floor-to-ceiling with art – a smörgåsbord of sizes, styles, and materials. Walking from room to room feels like falling down a rabbit hole.

I had almost adjusted to the neon blue walls of the entrance room when a painting of a baby bird appeared in front of me, demanding in block letters: “PLEASE DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT ART”. Nearby, a couple debated whether the price of a painting was fair. The man turned to the woman and said in a stage whisper, “If you’d bought one of her paintings a decade ago, you could’ve had it for only five thousand pounds.” She quickly replied, “Well, you might be able to say that about anyone here ten years from now!”

The exhibition always features several famous and up-and-coming artists from the UK and abroad, but the joy of the show is its open submission process. Any artist can submit work, and more than 4,000 pieces are chosen for the final round of decisions. Curators give no special treatment to artists with name recognition or gallery representation. The result is a show that crowds the gallery walls like a tube station during bank holiday: bustling, hot, colourful, breathtaking.

“It’s show that crowds the gallery walls like a tube station during bank holiday: bustling, hot, colourful, breathtaking”

Deeper into the exhibition, I found a small square portrait of a dog posing by Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Stuck on the wall next to it was an orange dot sticker that meant it had been sold. Nearly every piece in the exhibition – from the most expensive sculpture to the cheapest print – is for sale. Those interested can buy an official Summer Exhibition List of Works for reference (“only £3.50, over by the reception desk”). The booklet is over 200 pages long and contains only the name, artist, material, and price of each work.

On opening day, more than half of the exhibition’s 1,351 works showed off at least one dot. The Royal Academy invites buyers from past years to preview the exhibition in the weeks leading up to the grand opening, so a concentrated burst of serious buying happens during this exclusive “shopping period”. When a piece can be produced and sold in multiples – like prints and photographs – more than one dot can be put up. Tucked away in a corner of a top floor gallery hung a framed US dollar bill with the word “TRASH” printed on it in violent orange. It already had 83 dots.

For a show whose subtitle is ‘Art Made Now’, the RA’s Summer Exhibition showcases surprisingly few new media and digital works. With the exception of a handful of videos and a moderate selection of sculptures and architectural models, most of the work on display is two-dimensional – paintings, prints, photographs, drawings, mixed media. Maybe the subtitle should read ‘For Sale: Art Made Now’. Even so, the show feels fresh and exciting – a snapshot of the contemporary art world’s easily packable, transportable, sellable side.

“The show is a snapshot of the contemporary art world’s easily packable, sellable side”

From abstract geometry to portraits, still life to landscapes, text to textures, each room jams together a mix of references, inventions, jokes, egos, beauty, and quiet moments. A lonely twig looks down from just below the ceiling. A large flattened bust of the Queen smiles warmly. The whole thing seems like a mess.

Yet it talks to itself. A print of a mountain in one of the later galleries reminded me of a tiny painting of a house I had seen high up in the entrance room. Retracing my steps through several galleries, I noticed more pieces – sculptures, photographs, a video – that had a family resemblance. Colours call to colours across galleries. A robin’s egg blue sounds out first in paint, then echoes back in ink and cloth and metal from four different rooms.

I wandered back (for the third? The fourth time?) through a gallery filled with to-scale architectural models. Each was delicately constructed, with tiny human figures frozen inside. Around them, giants drifted by: gallery visitors moving from room to room. I thought of the bustle outside, of Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus. How many people were walking through London right then? I imagined the city shrunken down to the size of a dollhouse. Tiny people walk through each carefully constructed model building and some of them look up in rooms filled with microscopic paintings. I suddenly zoomed back to reality as a woman popped out of a tunnel built into the display in front of me. “Wow”, she said breathlessly. “Welcome to wonderland!”


5 Stars

Where? Royal Academy When? Until 19th August How Much? £18 (£16 without donation)