Words, words, words.
An unusual beginning for a visual arts review, but it's appropriate in the case of Lesley Dill, who gives new meaning to "wordsmith."
In forging her art from language, Dill joins a tradition that spans Japanese haiga, which has married visual art with haiku for centuries, and contemporary conceptual artists such as Jenny Holzer, whose "truisms" projected on buildings read like profound tweets writ monumental.
Dill, 59, has carved her own place in that lineage as you will see in "I Heard a Voice: The Art of Lesley Dill" at the Museum of Fine Arts. Thirty-four sculptures, photographs and prints fill the galleries of the museum's new wing, and every inch of wall space is needed to accommodate the two largest works, Rush and Rise, which literally rush out and rise up along the triple-height surfaces of the main gallery.
Dill's use of words is different from text-associated artists such as Holzer, Edward Ruscha and Barbara Kruger. For them, a readable message is integral to a work's meaning, and it becomes art in the way that message is presented. In many instances, Dill's words are unintelligible, woven from wire and thread, printed or embroidered on diaphanous fabrics, even punched from bronze. They share the same kind of intellectual inscrutability found in Emily Dickinson's poems.
Those spare, parsed nuggets of repressed feeling and unflinching observation changed Dill's art, actually launched her art when she was in her 40s and still looking for something original and defining.
She was an English major who loved the tactility of her grandmother's weaving but says she didn't show early promise as an artist and was late getting her start professionally.
She earned a master's degree in education from Smith and taught but decided to enter graduate school for a master's degree in fine arts in her 30s.
"I applied to a bunch of schools and the only one who took me was the Maryland Institute College of Art, and I think it was because of my interview, not because of the art I submitted," she says.
After graduation, she headed to New York. She was almost 40 before everything started coming together artistically.
"I had moved from painting to sculpture bit by bit," she says, "and I was doing carved figures like Giacometti. I realized Giacometti had already done Giacometti, so I thought I would make clothing for them."
During the time the garment idea was percolating, she says, "I got the book."
The book was a collection of Emily Dickinson poems, a gift from her mother, and for Dill, who "had never been a poetry person," Dickinson's words "leapt off the page. They bypassed my rational mind and went to an intuitive place."
Clothing and language became metaphorically linked for Dill, each a form of conveyance for who and what we are physically and spiritually. A stay in India refined that idea. Unable to understand Hindi, she gave herself over to the way it sounded when spoken and the way it looked printed on a page. For Dill, the message became the medium.
Intricate dress forms like ball gowns or historical costumes in Word Queen of Laughter and Word Queen of Poetry are made of words cut from metal foil or shaped from wire. Dress of Opening and Close of Being is a collage of figures — lots of them skeletons — and the wordplay comes in a long necklace spelling out the title. Almost all of the text in the works is indecipherable and is meant to be.
The artist does a lot more than dresses. The creative impulse, symbolized by language, gushes from heads, hands and entire bodies throughout the exhibition. Ecstasy, a bronze statue, references The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, the great 17th century marble sculpture by Bernini. In Dill's work, a man kneels, arms out in a gesture of supplication. Orange-dyed horsehair billows from his legs in which the work's title is spelled out in wire, a spiritual experience made manifest. The horsehair also suggests blood and one's life force emptying from the body. In the Italian Ecstasy, based on Teresa's autobiography, she is visited by an angel who pierces her with a fiery spear, inducing her mystical swoon. Dill's figure, too, has been pierced. A poem on the wall label talks about the wounded deer that leaps highest when on the verge of death. Both Bernini and Dill seem to agree that a physical disturbance is necessary for spiritual awakening.
As with Ecstasy, language becomes a more subtle trope in her most recent works, a stand-in for the inexpressible. That monumental installation Rush, for example, has as its main character a seated man of few words in the lower left of the wall. From his back spews a maelstrom of dark figures that become a dense, silvery cloud as they cover the wall. Hundreds of people and animals represent every memory, thought or encounter we have ever had, too myriad and overwhelming for something as specific as words.
Rise is another work of high drama visually, though it's more contemplative thematically. Dill typically uses color sparingly, but this work is in-your-face red. Red has many emotive associations, but Dill borrows from India, where it's considered both celebratory and pure, the choice for weddings. A robed figure sits meditatively as embroidered silk panels, bunched at his back, rise and unfurl 60 feet into a great, levitating fan. Thoughts and ideas once released from our physical vessel are like sound waves that travel ever outward.
A similar principle is found in Word Messengers (A Single Screw of Flesh Is All That Pins the Soul), based on lines from a Dickinson poem. Two figures, one white, one black, are suspended from the ceiling, given flight by "wings" made from the poet's line compressed into a jumble of indecipherable Gothic letters.
Dill's manipulation of contrasting materials, some tough, some fragile, also sets up the tension between the corporeal and spiritual: Organza is molded to create body armor, for example, and bronze is cast and painted to resemble paper.
Language is just a series of symbols imbued with the meaning and power we give them. In reading this, you affirm my arrangement of those symbols. We have a collective agreement. Dill's use of language seeks a different affirmation, a more private pact that doesn't require one necessarily to know a language, only to understand its intent.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.