A monthly glimpse at the works in the current exhibition Gilded: Contemporary Artists Explore Value and Worth. On view at the Weatherspoon Art Museum at UNCG through April 8, 2023.
Summer Wheat, “Blue Puddles” (left), 2021. Courtesy of the artist. © Summer Wheat, photo courtesy of the artist
Throughout her work, Summer Wheat addresses themes of labor and its values, most often through dynamic tableaux of female figures in productive motion: sweeping, hunting, planting, hauling, weaving. Visually inspired by a range of art-historical precedents from Ancient Greek pottery and Medieval tapestries to the paintings of Pablo Picasso and paper cutouts of Henri Matisse, her work is conceptually informed by an equal breadth of folklore, mythology and a careful attention to current events.
Wheat’s process is just as laborious as the scenes she creates. She first paints the back of a large sheet of aluminum mesh, allowing the colors to press through the holes and form a dense texture on the front. She then enriches that surface with additional paint and the meticulous application of gold leaf. Initially in her work, she applied the gilding liberally to emphasize the value of physical human labor—hard tasks often carried out in the face of difficulties presented by nature. In her most recent body of work, however, Wheat inverts her focus by turning attention to the value of mental labor and the fragility of nature. In tune with this new message, she now restrains and restricts her gold leaf to draw attention to small details that might otherwise be overlooked.
Wheat considers our present moment especially “in need of reflection.” Across the monumental canvas “Blue Puddles” (left), her female figures peer into puddles to see themselves, resulting in a cacophony of mirrored images. The mirror is historically associated with rich symbolism and loaded with cultural weight. For example, in the myth of Narcissus or the fairy tale of Snow White, reflections serve to highlight the ills of vanity. In Lewis Carroll’s stories of Alice, the young girl traveled through a looking glass to a wonderland where logic is reversed and nothing is quite as it seems. Alice’s encounter with talking flowers seems an apt reference for Wheat’s figures surrounded by blooms. Among them, it is the tiny floral centers, bodies of bees, and blades of grass that Wheat uplifts with gold leaf.
In a period of overwhelming pressures—political fracture, a global pandemic, accelerating climate change—Wheat seems to suggest that perhaps we can make our way not by attempting to tackle it all, but by taking a critical look at ourselves and planting some seeds for personal growth, or simply appreciating the beauty and resiliency of nature and literally planting seeds to aid its renewal.
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