I can’t remember ever having left an exhibition of paintings and subsequently thinking much about how they were created. The “Summer Wheat: Blood, Sweat, and Tears” exhibit of 17 paintings and drawings from 2017- 2019 at Kemper Museum of Contemporary has changed all that.
Wheat considers her work to be “an intersection of painting, drawing and sculpture” and arrived at her current method of working after some years of experimentation. Shopping for inexpensive materials at the Dollar Store, she happened to purchase some window screens and decided to test them as a possible support for painting. When covered in pigment, the aluminum mesh of the large-scale works at Kemper Museum may fool the viewer into thinking that they are looking at contemporary textiles, especially when the edges undulate against the walls. But it is the great variety of surface textures that makes one begin to question how they were achieved.
Working from the reverse of the screen, Wheat applies the paint in various ways: with her fingers, a syringe, a plastic scraper or other tools. The results are rich and diverse, and unlike any impasto you have ever seen. Yet the artist does not limit herself to working from the back; she frequently circles her creation to check on its frontal progress, perhaps to smooth out certain areas or add hand-painted lines.
For years, Wheat has been exploring the theme of women at work. In “Blood, Sweat, and Tears,” we see her women hunting, fishing, gardening, wrestling an alligator, even making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Wheat’s painting style might be described as sophisticated and slightly primitive at the same time. A wealth of detail such as painted nails or high heels slyly emphasizes their gender. I wanted to make “works where women did the heavy lifting and were running things,” she said. “I felt empowered to reimagine our historical images and tell a different story.”
Wheat’s preparatory process takes weeks, as she makes preliminary drawings on an iPad and researches art historical images. Some of the influences for “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” were Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress” and small Greek figurines which seemed almost cartoon-like to the artist. “When I noticed I was gravitating toward using materials in unorthodox ways, I decided the themes of the work needed to be rooted in familiar subject matter. The references and archetypes in my paintings revolve around depictions of daily life, which have always been a fundamental part of visual art,” Wheat explained.
Kansas City collectors Christy and Bill Gautreaux have loaned “Biting Nails” to the exhibition. As Bill Gautreaux commented upon his initial reaction to Wheat’s work, “When I first experienced Summer’s work, I was drawn to the vibrancy of color and process almost in a whimsical way . . . I guess that makes me a typical male audience as I didn’t take the work too seriously. Now when I see the work I am focused on the irony of that and I am serious about her work and have added a new painting. Her process keeps refining. In the show, I really like “Biting Nails.” I look back now and see things I didn’t before. Women toil, women run things, women do so much that goes unnoticed.”
Erin Dziedzic, Kemper Museum’s director of curatorial affairs, summarizes the artist’s work in this way: “Like the breadth of art historical influences present in her subject matter, which put women at the forefront of once male-dominated scenes, Wheat’s painting process uniquely combines multiple techniques — like pushing paint through the back of a wire mesh surface or painting directly onto the clumped paint surface — which illuminate her adept hybrid style. She has aesthetically linked painting, sculpture and tapestry, spanning centuries.”
“The reaction to the exhibition has been very positive, Dziedzic added. “I think seeing Wheat’s work in person is key, it has a profound impact.”
I could not agree more.
“Summer Wheat: Blood, Sweat, and Tears” continues at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., through May 24. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday – Wednesday, 10 a.m. to -9 p.m. Thursday – Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday – Sunday. For more information, 816.753.5784 or www.kemperart.org.