January 2017

by Erica Ciccarone

Erica Ciccarone is an independent writer. She holds an M.F.A. from the New School in Creative Writing. She blogs about art at nycnash.com.

Courtesy of the University of the South; Jessica Wohl, Are We the Hollow Men?, 2016, Found fabric, pants, skirt, bed sheets, shirts and machine quilting, 60” x 60”

“We need art more than ever now.”

I’ve heard many express this sentiment since Donald Trump won enough electoral votes to become our president. Art generates empathy; it speaks across language and cultural differences. It makes us vulnerable, and in that vulnerability, we are offered access to things unknown about our human condition, our conflicted hearts. So when people say, “We need art more than ever now,” I understand what they mean.

My question is this: Who is “we”?

Jessica Wohl’s exhibition at the University of the South is called Love Thy Neighbor, and it’s about us. All of us. In eight large-scale textile paintings and twenty small drawings, Wohl is both coaxing and shouting, praying and cursing, hopeful and afraid. She began the series after years of reflection on the visible and invisible lines that divide Americans. The quilts all share a commonality: Through pieced fabric or quilted lines, they separate the viewer with fences, trellises, and bars. She scouts material from thrift stores and yard sales all over the country. She says they are “stand-ins for Americans,” people of all stripes who have lived in and loved in clothing, sheets, and drapes—the textiles of everyday life.

The exhibition contains many voices. While some direct our attention with text, others rely on grids and hints of representational forms. The Wall That Is Already Built resembles a tall gate and references the wall Trump has promised to build between the United States and Mexico. However, the title suggests that wall already exists in our consciousness. The painting puts the viewer on the other side of the wall, peering through at a lovely floral landscape beyond her reach.

As Wohl writes in her exhibition statement, she is both optimistic and pessimistic about the direction of our country. While we’ve made important strides in the last four years, the political polarization, increased gun violence, and documented deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement have caused an inner conflict that the artist finds difficult to reconcile. As she made the current work, the presidential election peaked, making clear deeper divisions amongst Americans than many thought possible—and many others thought inevitable.

Jessica Wohl, Stars and Bars, 2016, Found fabric, bed sheets, pillowcases, pants and machine quilting, 60” x 60”

The most aggressive work in the show is called White America. She overlaid the words “Shut Up and Listen” on an upside down American flag. It’s the message on her own heart: While she wants to shout to make people understand, she recognizes that as a white person, her voice is privileged. She needs to listen to the voices of people who have to fight to be heard, and she knows it’s a messy, imperfect undertaking.

We Shouldn’t Have to Live This Way and It Hurts More Than We Think stand out as particularly strong pieces: Each centers the embroidered cursive of the painting’s title in a field of appliqué flowers. Embroidery has traditionally been practiced by middle- and upper-class women. Unlike quilting, it serves only a decorative function. Wohl again acknowledges her socially conferred advantages by choosing to use a contemporary calligraphy for these conciliatory messages.

The strongest indictment comes in a quilt of dark colors that yield to bars, through which you can see rainbows. Using a free motion quilting foot, Wohl wrote the lines from a poem by T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men.” Eliot, always enamored with Dante, describes husk-like figures that lean against one another like scarecrows in a wasteland, unable to enter heaven or hell. They exist in a state of apathy and indifference, awaiting a deliverance they feel incapable of even accepting. The ending is one of the most powerful and oft- quoted stanzas in American poetry, and it’s the one Wohl chose to make a searing statement about the American people.

This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends.

The final line, which she left off the quilt, is the kicker: “Not with a bang but with a whimper.” In the gallery, it’s aptly placed beside White America. But the exclusion of the final line didn’t hit me until later. It suggests that we still have a chance to unite and be heard.

Wohl became pregnant shortly after beginning the series in January. In April, she attended a workshop in Boston with colleagues from the University of the South, where she is a professor. The Public Conversations Project fosters dialogue across political lines through focused, nonviolent communication. There’s something profound about all of this. As the election got more divisive, Wohl delved into communicating passionately and effectively across political and social differences. At the same time, she made a baby. Malcolm was born on September 7.

University of the South student Alyssa Holley dances, with the quilt White America. Students choreographed a routine based on Jessica Wohl’s exhibition.

The twenty drawings are delicate portraits of people in repose. It’s not clear if they are asleep or dead, and the uncertainty only makes them more unified. It speaks to a desire for tranquility, for unencumbered rest. Standing amidst the quilted paintings and small drawings, I felt comforted and cared for. Love Thy Neighbor is about boundaries, but it is also about breaking them. Art does not only teach us about our human condition; it helps us to envision a future that honors our differences while making us whole.

 

Love Thy Neighbor by Jessica Wohl is on view at the University Gallery in Sewanee, Tennessee. For more information, visit www.gallery.sewanee.edu.

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