JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2003

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Re: Making History
by David Spalding

ART and LETTERS
Lesley Dill's Visionary Poetics


by J. Gluckstern


„Exhilaration is within.š
ų Emily Dickinson, from #383



A key turning point in the art and life of Lesley Dill came at the hands of a poet most of us left behind in high school. In 1990, on Dill‚s fortieth birthday, her mother gave her a book of Emily Dickinson poems. Dill‚s response to Dickinson was immediate and transcendental, a gestalt that revealed to Dill the fertile potential of the relationship between word and image, language and emotion, body and spirit. Dill had considered this relationship before reevaluating Dickinson, but suddenly she knew what to do with it.
 
Superficially, the introduction of text into Dill‚s already suggestive, body-centered works marks her metamorphosis. In the long run, though, it seems the deeper strata of Dill‚s ephemeral yet wrenching sensibility finally could speak.
Lesley Dill, Voices in My Head, 1997, charcoal and thread on gelatin silver print, 68 by 53 inches. (photo courtesy George Adams Gallery)



As with most catalysts, Dickinson‚s poetry caused something like a chemical transformation in Dill‚s aesthetic, recombining familiar aspects of her psyche into radically new bases for her art. A lifetime of meditative practice, enhanced by a trip to India in 1990ų91, provided Dill with a substantial spiritual grounding and a capacity for deep contemplation. During her childhood, Dill had grown used to (and appreciative of) interpreting the private metaphoric language of her father, who heard voices and often „said one thing but meant another,š according to Dill. (She jokes, „I grew up in a bilingual household.š) And, at 14, Dill had what she describes (and still vividly recalls) as a vision, during which she reconciled the world‚s extremes. After such formative experiences, Dickinson‚s rich inner world, peculiarly exacting language and chilling honesty must have seemed comfortingly familiar to Dill. In addition, the two artists shared a familiarity with New England‚s mildly foreboding landscape, where Dickinson lived her entire life (in Massachusetts) and Dill spent her childhood (in Maine).
 
Dickinson, of course, isn‚t Dill‚s only inspiration, and her more conventional, art-world influences range from Nancy Spero‚s text-enhanced, incisive works to the performative tropes of Yoko Ono and the attenuated figural work of Alberto Giacometti. But Dickinson‚s resonant, oft-recurring vocabulary and abrupt, equivocal syntax seem to influence Dill‚s choices of material and juxtaposition; Dickinson‚s quietly catastrophic emotional clenches provide Dill with a strangely cathartic solace.

This sea change in Dill‚s aesthetic is only implied in „Lesley Dill: A Ten Year Survey,š a spare but substantial exhibit that explores the subtleties of Dill‚s text-related flowering as an artist rather than chronicling her development.
For one thing, the survey contains nothing of the „slight wooden figuresš (as she calls them) that Dill made immediately before she started using text. Around the time that Dickinson started influencing her, Dill began thinking about clothing those vulnerable figures, protecting them from the fragility of their (and, by extension, our) existence. The influx of words turned those garments into texts.

One early result was White Hinged Poem Dress (1991), a rigid Victorian sheath into which Dill cut block-letter words from a Dickinson poem. For the poem to be easily read, the dress cracks open on symmetrically placed hinges, making explicit the idea of opening oneself up for examination. Dill‚s later efforts included Poem Dress of Circulation #3 (1993), made of paper instead of clothųa clear reference to Dill‚s textual influencesųand slightly smaller than human, though the larger-than-proportional, voluminous skirt suggests purposeful distortion rather than diminution of the body‚s importance.

„A thought went up my mind today that I have had before.š
ų Emily Dickinson, from #701


The fount of Dickinson‚s wordsųusually as a pithy phrase or two instead of an entire poemųerupted in Dill‚s work throughout the 1990s. In Poem Eyes (1995), a 12 by 6 foot wall-hung piece, the phrase „ThESE -- SAW VISIONS - latch them softly ---š is written on the forehead of a large photograph of a woman‚s upper face (cut off at the nose). Below that, the images of her closed eyes have been affixed to long strips of tea-stained muslin that graze the floor. And in Dress of Nerves (Exhilaration is within...) (1995), a delicate mass of wire and thread, the title‚s parenthetical phrase snakes out of the dress‚s gauzy interior like a bell cord.

Lesley Dill, Poem Eyes, 1995, oil, thread, wire, cloth on tea stained muslin, 148 by 77 inches.



Even this short list reveals the start of a visual and verbal vocabulary that Dill easily reuses and constantly reworks: clothing as a form of skin, and vice versa; a seeming preoccupation with hands, eyes, intimacy and personal revelation; the body as produced by literal and abstract strings of metaphoric text, a physical allegory for the cultural and experiential forces that forge our spiritual selves; and a consistent intensity of physical presence stemming from a profoundly sensitive understanding of the emotional resonances of material. In fact, Dill considers her materials to be partners in her process, leading individual works wherever they need to go.

The same can be said of Dickinson‚s poetry, which, in its own searching and revelatory way, led Dill first to the use of other writers‚ texts in her work, then to a pair of year-long community projects, one in 2000 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the other in 2001 in Boulder, Colorado.

Dill practiced a certain „artistic monogamyš in relation to Dickinson‚s words for a number of years. However, by the late 1990s, extraordinary but (as with her Dickinson selections) relatively unfamiliar passages from Franz Kafka, Salvador Espriu, Pablo Neruda and William Blake began finding their way into Dill‚s work. (She describes the process of choosing a phrase as seeing what catches her eye and mind while she scans a page of text.) At the same time, her formal vocabulary expanded and her titles became less generic and literally descriptive.

Word Through (1999), for example, is a smallish, white, headless aluminum figure with two white ribbons strung through two holes in the torso from back to chest. A number of repetitions of a line from Kafka, „I AM A HESITATION BEFORE BIRTH,š are stamped in oil on the ribbons, which guy wires hold up so they seem to float away from the figure. The snaking ribbons piercing the body hark back to the strand of text coming out of Dress of Nerves II (Exhilaration is Within), as well as a common element of Dill‚s performanceųlong, narrow scrolls that are drawn slowly from holes in the performers‚ clothing or mouths. More often than not, Dill will seem to kiss one of the performers, only to pull away with one end of such a scroll in her mouth. Even on video, the tenuous, ever-receding connection between Dill and the other person is palpable.

As Dill‚s interest in a broader visual and referential vocabulary grewųalong with her willingness to work on a larger social scaleųso did her approach to finding the verbal seeds of her work. In January 2000, she was offered a residency at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem as part of its „Artist and the Communityš series, which involves the chosen artists in the local community and challenges them to explore new artistic territory.

Dill conceived of her Winston-Salem project in a typically intuitive way. „I had never done this particular thing,š Dill told me. „What to do? I said yes (to the residency) and remembered that I had had a vision when I was 14 and growing up in Maine. I had barely allowed myself to think of it. It‚s not really a very safe thing, having a vision in this society. So, I thought I would see if others had had moments like this in one way or anotherųvisions, dreams, something momentary and affecting.š1

The SECCA project was dubbed „Tongues on Fireš and, to collect those visions, Dill and a wide variety of volunteers collaboratively crafted a questionnaire to distribute to hundreds of people in Winston-Salemųparticipants were not required to be residentsųover the course of a year. Dill gave public presentations in numerous venues, including bookstores, churches and schools, to describe the project and get responses. Questions included: „Have you ever experienced feelings of peacefulness, bliss, rapture or all-knowingness?š; „Have you ever experienced anything that you couldn‚t explain?š; and „How have any of these experiences affected, inspired or transformed your life?š

Stories piled up, and Dill dove into them, using her sensibility as a sounding board to find the most resonant language of the participants, and taking care to honor individual voices and experiences as she distilled them into phrases that accurately represented Winston-Salem‚s visionary diversity. In turn, those phrases, along with photographic images created by Dill on site, became the seeds for a series of billboards along U.S. Highway 52 and lyrics for songs sung by the Emmanuel Baptist Church Spiritual Choir.

In a catalog essay for „Tongues on Fire,š SECCA senior curator David Brown describes one of the billboards: „In őMy Name Was Called,‚ an open-mouthed, well-dressed man spews forth both language and image into an airy void. In a smeared hand-stamped fashion, the text (őMy Name was Called. In Darkness I See‚) floats above and below a raining cascade of open eyes. The text evokes what Dill calls őa quiet path of inner spirituality, opening life to possibility.‚š2

The well-dressed man in the billboard was Reverend John Mendez of the Emmanuel Baptist Church and choir, known for a deeply spiritual a cappella call-and-response singing style that goes back to some of the earliest Moravian settlers of the Winston-Salem area. One of the songs created for the exhibition‚s opening night performance set the following Dill-collected lyrics to the tune of an old hymn, „So Glad I‚m Here With Jesus Now.š „The night air was quiet and so still/The night air was quiet and so still/Alone in my room I felt a chillų/I heard a voice call my name/I heard a voice/Saying, őFeel not ashamed...‚/And I heard a voice call my name/I said things that I could not knowų/And I heard a voice calling my name.š3

Lesley Dill, from the community project
Interviews With the Contemplative Mind, 2002.

The Boulder project, which was organized by the CU Art Galleries at the University of Colorado and acknowledged that city‚s noted history of spiritual pursuit, was titled „Interviews With the Contemplative Mind,š and its modus operandi was very similar to that of „Tongues on Fire.š The questions were different, among them „Is faith something you‚re born with or do you build it? Which? How?š; „Are you successful?š; and „őThe soul has bandaged moments‚ (Emily Dickinson), Has sorrow had unexpected results in your life? Describe.š And instead of billboards, the collected language found its way onto some fifteen thousand copies of five different „art cardsš that were distributed to the Boulder community via both direct and unusual means, including surreptitiously dropping them into grocery bags or leaving them on cafe tables. One reads, „I think that intensity of reading altered my life somehow,š while the accompanying photo depicts a bald, expressionless white male with a jumble of letters surrounding his mouth as if they‚d been sloppily and forcefully typed there.

For the musical component of the project, Boulder‚s Ars Nova Singers adapted their richly polyphonic, early music-inspired a cappella style to lyrics supplied by Dill. The fifty-minute opening night presentation of this collaboration was called „I Heard a Voice,š some of which was sung and some whispered, a technique often used in Dill‚s performances and easily evoked by the sometimes diminutive or lightly printed text in her visual work. Its title piece included the following lyrics: „Voices, in my head/I am listening/Silence opens/Voices, in my head/Above the eyes.//In quiet I can hear what needs to be heard./In silence I can hear what needs to be heard./hearš4

„If the language collecting was breathing in,š Dill said in August 2002, „then the photo/language cards and the music of Ars Nova is the breathing out. The distribution of these small cards, with distilled language of Boulder, and my images in response, is about giving away. The audience is included just by the simple act of receiving the gift.

„The cards are also about bringing art and poetry, no matter how small, how momentary, out in the world. It‚s the reverse of expecting people to get in their car and go to an art museum or gallery. It‚s bringing this work to grocery stores, girl scout meetings, bookstores, laundromats. Art gives.š

„I am alone like a tunnel.š
ų Pablo Neruda


Not surprisingly, all the giving and receiving in the back-to-back community projects left Dill needing some time to absorb it all. „I‚m not going to do another one of these projects for a long time,š Dill told me in Boulder in June 2002, „because I crossed the line. There‚s no line for meųI‚m not outside, I become it. I change. I think I am very devoted now to development of the inner life and the intimacy of connecting with people. Maybe I‚ve learned at this moment that spirituality for me is about connecting.š

During the years that Dill worked in Winston-Salem and Boulder, a particularly telling motif began to show up in her workųpaper leaves, which are used in many of the more recent pieces in the survey exhibition (and several Dill has made since). For Dill, they are inextricably linked to her rural and „naturalš childhood in the Maine Adirondacks, where her father taught biology and her grandfather owned a tree farm. As stand-ins for both skin and paper, leaves also add a layer of infinitesimally variable (and chemically and physiologically induced) color. And, more directly, the sight of dark leaves against a bright sky outside Dill‚s window when she was 14 triggered her first vision.

In Dreams and Visions (2000), small lengths of thread are sewn into a tea-stained photograph of a leaf-shaped network of smaller paper leaves sprouting from the head of an African-American woman. Dill created this piece while working on „Tongues on Fireš and used it again on one of the art cards for „Interviews With the Contemplative Mind,š yet another example of Dill‚s penchant for recycling her imagery. In Voice (2002), the lower half of an unevenly painted wooden mannequin torso hangs upside down in midair while a frozen torrent of white paper leavesųupon which are printed the words „Voice,š „Bloodš and „Bonešųtumble out onto a white pedestal. The uncanny expressiveness of the metaphoric viscera adroitly balances the construction‚s precariousness and apt vulnerability.

As Dill has so eloquently reiterated throughout her career, the point isn‚t just that we are all figuratively made of vitally resonant text and image, but that there‚s nothing bloodless about it. The use of metaphor isn‚t to escape the messiness of existence, but to situate it in a truer context, one where neither idea nor flesh has ascendancy and the struggle between them produces a rough but ultimately consoling harmony. When Dill weeps, we follow the tears from duct to salty residue on her skin; when she feels joy or pain, we come away with the same radiant blush or bruise. And we carry those marks of being with us, not out of some aesthetic loyalty to Dill, but because they are now a part of us.

„Lesley Dill: A Ten Year Surveyš was organized by the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at the State University of New York, New Paltz, and is at the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu until January 12, 2003, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art February 8ųMay 11, 2003 and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. July 7ųSeptember 15, 2003.

NOTES 1. Direct quotes from Lesley Dill were compiled from in-person interviews, public presentations by Dill, phone calls and email correspondence throughout 2002. 2. David J. Brown, „A Gentle Flame,š Tongues on Fire: Visions and Ecstasy (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, 2001): 7. 3. Terri Dowell-Dennis, „Singing Forth the Spirit,š Tongues on Fire: Visions and Ecstasy: 8. 4. From the program for „I Heard a Voice,š performed by the Ars Nova Singers on Sept. 5, 2002, in the CU Art Galleries, University of Colorado campus, Boulder, Colo., during the opening reception for „Lesley Dill: A Ten Year Surveyš: 9.

J. GLUCKSTERN is the visual arts critic for the Boulder Daily Camera and teaches film production at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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