Summer Wheat’s Communal Eden

LOS ANGELES — Summer Wheat’s Fertile Ground is a lushly mystical garden. Featuring brightly colored large-scale paintings and three sculptures, her third show at Nazarian / Curcio showcases her attention to intricate detail and the labor of art-making, reflecting the female-centric labor depicted in the paintings themselves. 

In these works, the Oklahoma-born, Brooklyn-based artist leans into modernist abstraction, ancient art, and Renaissance etchings, as well as mythology. She is particularly interested in the Greek Amazons, a group of female warriors and huntresses considered to be as courageous and physically agile as their male counterparts. Indeed, in Fertile Ground, women have — and do — it all. They are both hunters and gatherers, but also beekeepers, farmers, bankers, gardeners, and movie stars. And instead of embracing an individualistic “hustle culture,” which capitalism enshrines, they work communally and find time to rest. The paintings challenge entrenched ideas of “women’s work” and ask viewers to imagine a community-oriented utopia where work-life balance is encouraged.

At first glance, the paintings resemble knitted textiles or complex beaded tapestries. Upon further inspection, though, the medium is revealed as acrylic and gouache paint pushed through aluminum mesh via syringes, cake-decorating paraphernalia, and other surfaces. This is an involved process, as evidenced by “Seed Fountain” (2023), in which a woman spews giant brown seeds out of her open mouth, watering a garden with one hand and casting a net with the other. The serpentine detailing of her net and hair are rendered in turquoise and black against a bright blue sky. Classic garden imagery, such as red apples, ladybugs, and baby chicks, are piled on a small patch of soil, a nod to the many roles women play in the creation and tending of life.

Men are mostly absent from Wheat’s densely populated gardenscapes. The exception is “Rose Garden” (2023), where a young woman straddles a hairy man in a garden of neon magenta roses, a glimpse of leisure and ecstasy. As the two figures are the same size, Wheat uses a hierarchy of scale to signal their equality in a utopian microcosm. 

Three sculptures inspired by ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman mosaics are covered in white, black, red, and gold tile featuring folky frogs, butterflies, and abstract female faces. Approximately the size of a small park bench, these sculptures mimic pebbles you might find along a stream. Made of stone, glass, and grout, Wheat offers viewers a site to rest, in line with the ethos of her paintings. 

From Tricia Hersey’s the Nap Ministry, an organization dedicated to examining the liberating power of “rest and resistance,” to Kim Kardashian’s curt comment that “nobody wants to work these days,” to the proliferation of quiet quitting, we are receiving mixed messages about labor and leisure in a society obsessed with overproduction. Wheat’s gardens, on the other hand, represent a world where work and leisure equally coexist, one where the high-achieving executive is no more valuable than the beekeeper, and both get the rest they need to wake up and do it all over again. 

Summer Wheat: Fertile Ground continues at Nazarian / Curcio (616 N La Brea Ave, Los Angeles) through April 6. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.  

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