|''Word Messengers (A Single Screw of Flesh Is All That Pins the Soul)'' is in the exhibit of Lesley Dill's sculptural installations. (Courtesy of Lesley Dill And George Adams Gallery)|
Words and images coalesce
Dill's works share vision of enlightenment
NORTHAMPTON - A single screw of flesh is all that pins the soul.
So Emily Dickinson begins one of her poems, and so Lesley Dill titles one of her sculptural installations in the soulful, ecstatic "I Heard a Voice: The Art of Lesley Dill" at the Smith College Museum of Art.
In "Word Messengers (A Single Screw of Flesh Is All That Pins the Soul)," crumpled, ethereal figures in black and white rise off the floor, suspended by thread strung through wings made of gothic letters. The letters are hard to read (Dill's text usually is), but they undoubtedly spell out Dickinson's line. Her sentiment about life's transience and hope for transcendence resonate through the piece.
This is the stuff of Dill's art: the ability of language and image to take us - and sometimes force us - inward toward enlightenment. At 14, she had a vision that reckoned with life's sorrow and pestilence, and with the sublime.
"My entire visual screen was suddenly filled with a weblike spiral of concentric, black and white images," she is quoted as saying in a catalog essay by Nandini Makrandi Jestice, curator of contemporary art at the Hunter Museum of American Art, which organized this traveling exhibit. Dill goes on, "And in that moment, I was given to understand the world."
That same year, her mother gave her Dickinson's collected poems. "Words leapt off the page . . . causing a stream of urgent images," says Dill.
The artist does not attempt to embody Dickinson's poems, nor those of Pablo Neruda or Salvador Espriu, whose words she also harvests. She often borrows just a single line. She experiences the poems viscerally.
"I felt the words were in my body the words came I felt my life from within," she declares, without breath or punctuation, in another catalog essay, by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve. Words then manifest into images, or sometimes they follow them. In every piece, the words come, and often repeat like a mantra, aiming directly for the spirit.
"I Heard a Voice" focuses mostly on Dill's work of the last decade, with a few older pieces as reference points. She's been showing internationally for more than 20 years, and contemporary art's feminist and global agendas course through her work. Her aesthetic coalesced after spending two years in New Delhi in the early 1990s, where the pattern of written Hindi entranced her and activated her own use of language. Back then, she was making works on paper.
"White Threaded Poem Girl" (1996) features a photo of a nude woman covered with the white, bold letters of Dickinson's line "I took my Power in my Hand. . ." The letters glow on the woman's dark skin, echoing the way Henna shines on the bodies of Indian brides. The image hangs high on a 13-foot length of tea-stained silk. White thread streams off of it, down toward the viewer - an ethereal connective tissue, a conduit. Like language.
In recent years, the artist has turned to sculpture and installation. Many of her works ripple outward. The sculpture "Ecstasy" (2003/2008) shows a kneeling bronze figure with long tresses of bright orange horsehair flowing around his legs. The word "ecstasy" is knotted in black letters among the glowing orange strands. Bliss spills and radiates.
Dill casts her bronze figures in paper molds, imbuing the solid sculptures with the fragility of the material they came from. They capture experiences of inwardness and transcendence with an ardor that embraces both ethereality and violence.
Sometimes enlightenment comes as a punch in the face - or so Dill conveys in a series stemming from that image, including "Punch," a 1999 wall sculpture in which a bronze fist emerges from a long, narrow, tea-stained muslin sleeve reading "How ruthless are the gentle" (Dickinson, of course) and collides with a bronze head.
She re-creates her adolescent vision in "Rush," a giant 2006-07 wall piece. A small, solitary figure in powdery black sits in the lower corner. A cyclone of cut-paper images whorls out from the figure's head. At first, the images - figures, animals - are all silhouettes in black, but as the vision expands, so do they, and they turn silver, with intricate patterns. They represent figures from world mythology, growing and differentiating, and also melting together, across the wall. A picture, perhaps, of Carl Jung's collective unconscious.
Early on, many of Dill's works on paper featured dresses. They read like skins for the soul, bruisable but willing. More recently, she has sculpted dresses, armatures of wire and steel knotted with text (all the tensile knotting in Dill's art puts her in a spidery lineage behind the fabled weaver Arachne and, dare I say, E.B. White's Charlotte). "Dress of Opening and Close of Being" (2008) stands nearly 7 feet tall, with a train scattered behind it, and what is either a hat or a spectacular collar opening at the top like an orchid. It is steely yet ghostly and porous, and avowedly feminine.
The sculptural installation "Rise" (2006-07) is the show stopper, joyously celebrating Dill's engagement with her inner life, and beyond. A bright red figure sits meditatively and humbly on a stool, just like the figure in "Rush." Behind this one, great silk banners billow upward, red skeins filled with light and text that reach 50 feet up from the comparatively small figure, toward awakening. The texts are often hard to read - one says "I lose myself to my senses" - but it doesn't matter. Language, for Dill, carries a mythic code whether you can read it or not.