Above: Install of Summer Wheat: Heavy Lifting. Photo by Ted Wathen. All images courtesy of KMAC Museum.

Summer Wheat: Heavy Lifting

Jessica Oberdick

Summer Wheat: Heavy Lifting consists of six paintings on KMAC Museum’s third floor. Within the paintings, a group of women work, push, and pull themselves through the compositions, their long hair flowing across the pictorial space. The thick textures of the work help to pull the viewer’s eyes across the paintings through heavy areas of line, pattern, and bright color. To create the paintings, artist Summer Wheat pushes acrylic paint through gridded metal supports, a novel technique that creates a topographic surface with mounds and heavy lines of paint that outline the figures and patterns in her compositions. Combined with the grand scale of the paintings, the works resemble woven tapestries spinning narratives that jump from painting to painting on the gallery walls.

Wheat’s paintings combine to create a fictional matriarchal society, one where the women perform the “heavy lifting.” Jobs traditionally assigned to men—hunting, fishing, and even using the grill to cook, are all completed by the women in the paintings. And they do the work without compromising their desires to display themselves femininely, with long thick hair and made-up faces. Even though they are proudly feminine, the women here are not objects of the gaze. Sculpted in various stages of action they avoid objectification by occupying the viewer with the work they are performing. They avoid the gaze even with their bodies on view, preoccupying the viewer instead with ritual, pattern, action. Further, the women in Wheat’s paintings, with their blue, yellow, or red skin, defy any traditional notions we have of race, creating an all-new society of women that cannot be stereotyped or forced to conform to preconceived notions of feminine identity. These new narratives are enhanced by Wheat’s technique which emphasizes the painting’s movement alluding to the ongoing action of the narratives and challenges traditional understandings of both painting and femininity.

In Rivers (2018), four women stand in swirling blue waters grasping and trapping fish in nets and baskets. They are dressed in matching bright yellow swimsuits and their long hair flows around them, acting as a guide for the viewer to find their way around the composition. The work strongly refers back to classical paintings of nymphs bathing and the figures’ elongated limbs reference Henry Matisse’s figures in The Dance (1910). Even in their swimsuits, Wheat’s women are not vulnerable as they stand in the swirling rivers. Unlike the women so often painted before them, whose flesh were targets for the eyes and will of male voyeurs, these women are strong and protected in their matriarchal society. As they work, they look back at the audience, confronting and acknowledging our presence. In another work, Heavy Lifting (2018), a large group of women work together to carry a massive basket above them—balanced on their shoulders, arms and heads and filled with open-mouthed fish, fruits, a blow-dryer, and a boombox. They wear brightly colored and patterned clothes as they make their way across their salmon-colored landscape. With high-heeled shoes and long, thick eyelashes, the women do not falter but work as an unrelenting team capable of providing for the tribe—and look good while doing it.

In Judith Butler’s “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” she compares the act of performing gender to the work of an actor in a theater. She reminds us that the act of performing gender is also done collectively—it is done for and with society, elaborating that “the act that gender is surely is not one’s act alone.”Butler’s conception of gender is captured in the narrative of Wheat’s paintings. The women here do not conform to the traditional or historic idea of a vulnerable or passive woman; they take on active roles and jobs most commonly attributed to men and successfully perform them throughout the narratives within Wheat’s compositions. Simultaneously, they perform a new form of gender that functions within their matriarchal society.

By depicting her fictional society in large-scale paintings, Wheat invokes the genre of history paintings that tell stories and honor powerful cultural figures. She creates new narratives, essentially spinning her own mythology dedicated to these powerful female leaders. Within each of the paintings, Wheat further explores ideas of myth by including the symbol of the fish as a unifying element. Throughout Art History, the symbol of the fish has acted as a symbol of life, fulfillment, wealth, and later as the symbol for Jesus Christ in Christian doctrine. Utilizing the fish symbol, Wheat connects her work to the canon of Art History and gives life and sustenance to her mythological society. In Fish Tears (2018), Wheat has sculpted a large-scale painting of a woman all in red with blue eyes who weeps small yellow fish down to the bottom edge of the work. Utilizing red and blue, Fish Tears essentially becomes a portrait of the Madonna. While this is likely not meant to be a direct portrait of Mary, the painting’s use of colors associated with her hints at this reference and creates a mother-like figure. Perhaps meant to serve as a version of Mother Earth or life-giving figure within this unique crafted society, the addition of this portrait, as well as Fisher (2018) which depicts a full-figured woman glancing at the viewer while she captures a single large fish, allude further to narratives of myth, Mother Earth, and connections between Wheat’s society and nature.

Summer Wheat: Heavy Lifting presents imagery of powerful women who challenge their role as objects to be sexualized and gazed upon and, instead, embody strength. This exhibit serves as a direct contrast to the Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville exhibition displayed on the second floor of KMAC. Within Picasso’s sketches and etchings, the female figure is shown in its traditional role as muse and, in some works, is depicted directly posing as muse and lying with the artist. In Wheat’s narratives, however, women defy these roles and take on active positions traditionally assigned to men, confronting the traditional ways women are displayed in art and disengaging with the historical tradition of women as muses.


Summer Wheat: Heavy Lifting
is on view at KMAC Museum until April 5th, 2020.

KMAC Museum is located at 715 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202 and open Tuesday-Sunday.

  • Summer Wheat
  • KMAC Museum
  • 1. Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” in The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology ed. Donald Preziosi, 2009 (Oxford, Oxford University Press) P. 362


Jessica Oberdick
Contributor to Ruckus

Fisher (2018), acrylic on aluminum mesh.

Fish Tears (2018), acrylic on aluminum mesh.

Install of Summer Wheat: Heavy Lifting. Photo by Ted Wathen.

Heavy Lifting (2018), acrylic on aluminum mesh.

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY