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At this very moment, Vermeer may be spinning like a lathe in his grave. Or, just maybe, he’s executing a slow, pleasurable shimmy. In either case, the proximate cause would be Walk-In Pantry, an installation at Fridman Gallery by the artist Summer Wheat.
Inspired by Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” (c. 1657–58), Wheat has artfully transformed the gallery space, reimagining it as a reflection of the titular milkmaid’s own pantry world. She has accordingly painted the walls to suggest a dark, Egyptian mausoleum, placed colorful transparencies — reminiscent of medieval stained glass — in the gallery windows, and covered part of the floor with “paint-rugs” inscribed with ingredients for dishes like “gau chau gau dumplins.” Are you following? Well, to fully understand the Vermeer connection, gallerygoers will have to linger a bit, and absorb in turn each element of this exuberant, free-wheeling installation. Once the multilayered concept sinks in, it all makes sense, in a circuitous way.
Tying together Walk-In Pantry is the artist’s footloose imagination. What to do with the gallery’s cube-like space and massive columns? A patterned frieze and column-like motifs in the corners give Fridman, one of those customary temples for art, the atmospherics of the real thing. Lining the black-painted walls are 11 six-foot-tall paintings, each a brushy, schematic depiction of kitchenware-laden shelves. Caught in florid strokes of black enamel paint and charcoal dust, the depicted objects have a cartoon-like life of their own. A stack of eight pans teeters, their handles pointing the same way, like sheep on a breezy day. In a tall bottle, fish radiate about a single point, as if fixing their gaze on an adjacent container. In another painting, goblets arrayed on five shelves shift through various states, as if posing in an evolution chart. The artist explains how the charcoal dust refers to a charcoal-heated foot warmer pictured in the Vermeer painting, and how kitchen utensils and recipes speak to the relationship between server and served. But you really needn’t know this to drink in the appealingly loopy images.
The gallery’s back room features “The China Cabinet,” an array of small paintings of vases, cups, and pitchers. These works, along with the larger paintings in the Pantry, will travel to a more comprehensive installation of Wheat’s work at the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center next year.
Accompanying them will be the “paint-rugs,” six of which now occupy the middle of the floor in the Pantry. They’re the most striking works in the installation. In tactile terms, they resemble worn tapestries, their surfaces exquisitely, intricately nubby. But they are no antiques; they hum with intense colors and cartoony graphic designs. The method for producing the “paint-rugs” borders on pure genius: the artist forces acrylic paint through an aluminum screen, tools the results from both sides, and then sprays on color. Five of the six helpfully list the ingredients for various dishes: “2 ½ pounds cut up chicken,” “1/4 cup bamboo shoots.” The last features a lone, vaguely icon-like figure — the lucky diner, perhaps. Lying side by side, the pieces radiate a mood of cheerful, slightly hallucinogenic consumerism.
What might Vermeer make of all this? We can only guess. But truth be told, his “Milkmaid,” having helped jumpstart the show, gets largely lost in the proceedings. Vermeer seems useful mainly for his rock-star art status; nothing in the installation really reflects his particular gift for brilliantly nuanced compositions. Wheat’s own paintings are long on panache, but a little shorter on formal rigor; like many of their contemporaries, they would suffer next to the work of Pierre Bonnard, whose scenes of interiors are vigorously realized despite their indulgent style. The multiple cultural allusions in Walk-In Pantry, consequently, are both intoxicating and exasperating; though charged with enthusiastic energy, evocative concepts, and inventive materials, the references to traditional art feel like exploitive glances.
But wait, is that a muffled voice singing the lyrics to “Use Me”? In a 17th-century Dutch accent? You never know.
Summer Wheat: Walk-In Pantry continues at Fridman Gallery (287 Spring Street, Hudson Square, Manhattan) through April 25.