There is a distinct liveliness in the University Art Gallery on the evening of Thursday, October 28. Associate Professor of Art Jessica Wohl has created a collection of bright, “unapologetically feminine” quilts, full of contrasting shapes, colors, and motifs that play with expectations regarding race and gender, exploring the question what if women ruled the world, and always had?
The opening of Wohl’s exhibit begins with an Arts Amplified performance. Dance students clad in black gather in a circle, and begin their choreography, stooping in front of individual quilts for solos, their shadowy silhouettes prominent against the blocks of color. They then come together in the center of the room again, inviting audience members to join them in the circle. People rise reluctantly from their seats, beckoned and brought into the explosive formation, and spontaneously follow the dancers’ leads.
The welcoming, warm spirit that this moment evokes reflects how the space of the UAG is transformed to house this exhibit. On the other side of the wall fixture that displays the name of the exhibit in hot pink, there is a bank of scrap fabrics rather than another piece of artwork. A table is set up there and provided with sewing supplies, carving out a space in the gallery for the process of sewing–a process that “requires time spent, touching and holding,” as Wohl describes it in her Artist Talk, emphasizing the importance of tactile perception in Imagining Matriarchy, an exhibit in which the objects, composed of second-hand fabrics and hand sewn stitches rather than canvas and paint, evoke an awareness of the physical comfort offered by quilts and the care associated with handmade goods.
The presence of this “mending station” grounds the gallery in the reality of how the surrounding artworks were produced, while also offering an invitation to visitors. Under the name of the Free Patch Work Project, Wohl offers visitors the opportunity to leave damaged garments at her table to be repaired, free of charge, with the patches at her disposal. Encouraging visitors to tell stories about their damaged clothes or to come observe the process or participate in it themselves, Wohl will be working at the mending station throughout the exhibit’s stay at the UAG: from 12-1pm on select Thursdays (Nov. 18, Dec. 2, Dec. 9), 3-4pm on Wednesdays (Nov. 3, Nov. 10, Nov. 17, Dec. 1, and Dec. 8), and, for a mending circle with hot apple cider and cookies, November 11, from 3 to 5pm.
The care and attention in the process of quilting is evident in the finished products themselves; intention is everywhere you look in Wohl’s Imagining Matriarchy. One piece, titled Black Light, is stitched with visible black and pink thread, a tiny detail with notable implications. “It is the blackness that is holding this work together–it is the pinkness, perhaps the femininess,” Wohl explained.
Wohl plays with traditional quilting patterns to produce commentaries on what her matriarchal world might feel like. Inspired by the pattern for a log cabin quilt, Wohl takes an orderly form and gives it a “frenzied energy” with staggered log figures and varied geometric shapes, some cut from the clothing of family members, and calls it Life at Home. Similarly, Wohl describes entering a workshop on star quilt patterns and ending up producing a reimagined national flag–one which took her nine months to create, she notes, drawing a connection between the production of this quilt and her recent pregnancy, an experience which greatly influenced her creative choices. The images she employs are familiar and traditional, and ventured to be made comforting rather than constricting with careful subversion.
The gallery, for now through December 12, has become home to an alternative world with an alternative history. Imagining Matriarchy embraces the viewer with every look, and encourages hope as visitors leave, assuring us that perhaps a reality more comfortable than our own can be assembled from what we already have.
To read more about Imagining Matriarchy go to: https://new.sewanee.edu/university-art-gallery/current-exhibition-2/