House of Leaves Captivates at the UAG

By Grace Truett
Contributing Writer

The first thing you’ll notice is the color. Vivid hues of pink, blue, and orange flicker within the space, and it’s all you can do to turn to the informational type on the wall before indulging yourself in the excitement of the exhibit. 

Titled House of Leaves, the exhibit at the University Art Gallery (UAG) by artist Jered Sprecher, Professor of Art at the University of Tennessee of Knoxville, does not shy away from observing our world through the lens of modern technology. More essential to us than ever in this age of Zoom classrooms, House of Leaves invests in both appreciating the simplicity of moments spent with nature and acknowledging how technology influences us. 

While all of the pieces within the exhibit are products of the past decade, only two of the pieces are marked by the date 2020. One of which, Breath, just completed in December, took over a year to complete. It is one of Sprecher’s larger works on display in the UAG, measuring 72 x 60 inches. Breath is an especially engaging image, almost abstract in the way it obscures the central figure and leaves the surrounding shapes to emerge with time and attention, slowly revealing the scene. Breath is based on a photo Sprecher took of the reflection of his son in the window of a flower shop. It is a piece that took time to create and takes time to consume, and yet consists of only a moment. It is a moment captured by technology but defined by nature, and the more delicate because of its composition of multiple layers – the glass, the reflection, the camera, and the objects within the window display. 

Placed to its right, Leaves, Ruminations, a grid of twelve oil paintings on paper, calls to mind the variety of the exhibit, and the significance of leaves as symbols to Sprecher. Throughout the exhibit, they appear as both recognizable representations and as more abstract allusions, the latter being the case in Leaves, Ruminations. In that piece, scattered color, meandering shapes, and unrefined brushstrokes contribute to the association with leaves, constantly shifting with the breeze and transforming with the seasons. Sprecher’s work satisfies the impulse to, in some way, capture that ephemerality.

“We hold a leaf in our hands, it is like a sheet of paper,” Sprecher writes for the House of Leaves slideshow posted on the UAG’s webpage, “Here are some notes, some profiles, something held in a hand, each one a thought, a breath, laid on a table.” 

In the center of the room, there are two tables covered in drawings and other small creations that invite the viewer into Sprecher’s creative process. The artist calls them Two Tables for a House. Some of the motifs that can be found around the exhibit are reflected in these scraps and ephemera that are displayed so carefully in glass. One example is a snapshot of a black witch moth taken by Sprecher in West Texas, which one of course associates with his 2018 piece called The Moth on the nearby wall. Another is the pages of a magazine woven together – one page full of type and the other a photograph of a climber scaling a snowy mountain – which is visually similar to Wild Braid (2018), a painting that embodies a more chaotic interwovenness. 

The artist calls these small additions on the table “those sort of random things that might float around the studio,” illustrating for viewers the intimate and important connection between studio and exhibition, inspiration and creation. There is a postcard of Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist, further inviting the viewer to

consider the beginnings of the artworks that surround them.

By the time I found myself standing in front of the single painting at the back of the room, I was amazed by how Sprecher takes advantage of the compact, rectangular space of the University Art Gallery. The walls decorated with paintings of vivid natural motifs and geometric shapes and lines bring the idea of a “house of leaves” to life. Sprecher’s work is both intricate and ambiguous enough to evoke the sensation of leaves shifting around you. The tables in the center of the exhibit ground the space and display the things that have fueled his more bold, final creations. With the image of the moth in mind, I looked upon The Study (2013), a piece Sprecher compares to a campfire or the screen of a tablet. In his Artist Talk, Sprecher says, “the light of the screen … as humans we’re drawn to that glowing light. How many times we have stared at it and we’ve lost time”. 

Sprecher accomplishes this magnetism in all of his works on display in House of Leaves. They recognize the viewers’ humanity and invite them to linger as long as they would like, basking in the mesmerizing glow of these magnified moments, drawing us in like moths to a flame. 

Experience House of Leaves at the University Art Gallery, available until March 28, 2021. UAG hours are 10am-5pm Tuesday through Friday and noon-4pm Saturday and Sunday. Viewers can also engage virtually with House of Leaves: a slideshow of the pieces, an artist talk with Jered Sprecher, and a webinar conversation with Sprecher and Sewanee’s own Art Historian Jeff Thompson are all available on the UAG web page under “Current Exhibition.”