Lesley Dill's breathtaking artwork explores how words shape our world

click to enlarge SHARED VISION: Lesley Dill's Rise, laminated fabric, hand-dyed cotton, paper, metal, silk organza with cotton. - Courtesy Of The Artist And George Adams Gallery, New York
Courtesy Of The Artist And George Adams Gallery, New York
SHARED VISION: Lesley Dill's Rise, laminated fabric, hand-dyed cotton, paper, metal, silk organza with cotton.

For all the blows that have been struck against the once-hallowed ideal of the artist as expressive genius, for many museum-goers a visit to that sacred temple of art is still about encountering the "voice" of a visionary. (For example, while, say, community-based artworks are gaining some traction as the focus of museum exhibitions, the blockbuster showcase devoted to a single, prodigious creative mind remains the gold standard.) From a certain perspective, this makes perfect sense: for many artists, artistic practice is a way of coming to terms with what feels like a singular experience of the world. And as viewers, why would we seek out their voices and visions if they weren't somehow different from our own?

Voices and visions play a prominent role in an exhibition of work by New York-based artist Lesley Dill currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. Though the title of her show, I Heard A Voice, alludes to a voice other than her own, much of Dill's work presents itself to the viewer as evidence — seductive, rapturous evidence — of the artist's attempt to grapple with her own highly idiosyncratic view of the world. Specifically, this view is rooted in a striking vision she experienced at the age of 14. In a flash of insight — literally, a concentric arrangement of images in black and white — Dill understood that, despite seeming evils like war and disease, an underlying pattern gives meaning to the chaos of existence.

(I emphasize this point not to suggest that I think or that Dill thinks that her work can be reduced to an effect of this vision, but because — in my opinion, at least — the root of Dill's voice in a personal experience of traumatic revelation hints at the profundity of her work as an inquiry into what it means to be a human being. Needless to say, Dill wants the viewer to bring his own associations and interpretations to her work, and she explicitly says so in one of the exhibition audio labels accessible by cell phone.)

This adolescent vision led Dill to a lifelong fascination with human beings as meaning-making creatures, perpetually giving form to thought in words and images. (Indeed, for the artist, one of the most remarkable things about people is how many thousands of words we don't give voice to, i.e., how many thoughts go unarticulated.) Along with this idea of humans as shapers of language — or, if you like, poets — comes the recognition of something like its opposite: namely, that language speaks us (to borrow a formulation from Heidegger), rather than the other way around.

This mind-bending inversion is given sculptural form in the profusion of words, letters and images that Dill uses to construct concrete bodies, freestanding garments and psychic extensions (e.g., an expanse of icons literally flowing out of one seated figure's mind, or a verbal "soul" hovering behind another figure). One arresting piece created specifically for the exhibition, which travels from the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, serves as a particularly apt example of Dill's mode. A chaotic jumble of foil letters and skeleton shapes adorn the organza shell of the Dress of Opening and Close of Being, an at-once-witty-and-macabre portrait of humanity as linguistic conduit — a lovably finite agglomeration of fantasy and utterance.

In a breathtakingly beautiful tea-stained banner, white painted and embroidered words traverse the body — the photographed body, transferred by silkscreen onto the banner — of a female figure. (Hence the work's apt title, White Threaded Poem Girl.) Like most of Dill's works, the image comes accompanied by a poem fragment or text by another artist — in this case, Emily Dickinson — which appears both in the work and on an adjacent wall label. (At a talk at the museum in October, Dill jokingly reassured visitors that they weren't responsible for deciphering the words in her work, which often appear in disjointed or hand-crafted forms that evade easy intelligibility.)

Dill's use of Dickinson in particular is hardly incidental; she dates the emergence of her mature work to receiving a volume of Dickinson's poetry as a gift from her mother. At first, she found herself inspired by the poetry of Dickinson (and others including Salvador Espriu and Rainer Maria Rilke) to create images, then began to create images and subsequently pair them with written words; in either case, the practice reinforces Dill's engagement with language and image-making within a "community" of human communication. Funnily enough, her poetic "collaborator" on two of the works included in this exhibition is Hank Hine, current director of the Salvador Dalí Museum and former director of Graphicstudio, where Dill worked as a resident artist in the 1990s to produce a series of prints.

The exhibition title, however, along with some of the most moving fragmented thoughts that appear in Dill's work here, are drawn from a community-based art project she undertook at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (in Salem, NC) in 2001. At SECCA, Dill — inspired, again, by her own revelatory experience — solicited accounts of visions from community members, which she subsequently used to produce collaborative public artworks in Salem as well as one of the most vivid and gripping sculptural installations in this exhibition, Rise. Virtually vibrating with the saturated redness of tikka, the power used by Hindus to mark the bestowal of a blessing as a dot on a person's forehead, Rise situates a seated figure at the base of an expanse of banners inscribed with visionary accounts including "I have left my body twice" and "time stood still." Like the other works in I Heard a Voice, Rise functions through a seeming paradox: despite its roots in Dill's personal experience (time spent living in India, a longtime engagement with language and poetry) and the individual accounts of Salem community members, its vision could hardly be more universal.

The MFA has scheduled some interesting events in conjunction with the show. They include:

Art on Tap (beer tasting with hors d'oeuvres; exhibition admission included), Sat., Nov. 7, 7-10 p.m., $30 in advance, $40 at the door.

College Night (live acoustic music and coffee in the MFA Café), Tues., Nov. 17, 6-8 p.m., $5 admission for college/university students with current ID.

Lesley Dill Family Day (kid-friendly entertainment), Sat., Nov. 21, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., one free child admission with each paid adult.

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