The seven paintings in Rachell Sumpter’s latest exhibition—bright, delicate evocations of tribal existence in forests thick with plant life—measure just under one square foot each. Populated by impossibly small human figures and vines the width of a thread, these tiny tableaux articulate the intimate aspect of communal living while also setting it awash in the vastness of the natural world. They are akin in this regard to Justine Kurland’s photographs of families set amid the idylls of nature, as in her 2007 series “Of Woman Born.” Family (all works 2011), whose blue-green palette and upward-trailing creepers conjure an underwater setting, depicts a hunter-gatherer domestic harmony, a primal scene that is nevertheless utterly recognizable. In the beautifully rendered Waterfall, a lush array of plants ornament the walls of a cliff; on the crest, mist obscures minute figures and treetops, a pale wash that is subtly mirrored by the milky wakes of fishermen in the pool below.
Utopia is in Sumpter’s work—cultish and celebratory but also ritualistic. The foliage wreath laced with a rainbow-hued web in Old Friend, and the skeleton in fetal position enbowered in greenery and flowers in the cosmic Red Ochre, resemble magical objects, tools signifying elemental power. Her figures’ colorful embroidered costumes—which fall somewhere between Nick Cave’s ecstatic “Soundsuits” and Forcefield’s patterned, knit outfits—likewise carry a joyful, totemic quality, again one that is both familiar and mysterious. This strangeness derives in part from the sense that these folkish impulses are relics now, that worlds such as these are lost. But Sumpter’s method of close looking is alchemical, finding rewards in the appreciation of everyday details.