I Heard a Voice: The Art of Lesley Dill
This summer SCMA hosts the major loan exhibition I Heard a Voice: Art of Lesley Dill, organized by the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in conjunction with the George Adams Gallery in New York. The exhibition showcases the recent work, including large-scale installations, of Smith artist-alumna Lesley Dill (MAT 1974). With Lauren Greenfield's Thin and Girl Culture exhibitions on view this spring and Touch Fire: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics by Women Artists this fall, I Heard a Voice is part of the Museum's Women of the Year programming for 2009. The exhibition, which is accompanied by a catalogue, is on view at SCMA from May 13 through September 13.
Dill works in a variety of media, including prints, photographs, sculpture, installation and performance art. In the last ten years, her work has grown beyond vertical and wall-based formats to encompass works meant to be seen in the round. Paper is still the medium that is most associated with Dill's work, but the tea-stained paper and fabric dresses that she created from these fragile materials have now been joined by bronze sculptures and wire dresses, including her Word Queens (2007) in the exhibition. The Word Queen of Poetry is a woman in a ball gown whose form and dress are entirely made as a latticework of wire and steel, while the Word Queen of Laughter is a gown that can be shown both "closed" and "open," as components of the skirt and bodice open outward, much as a dragonfly opening its wings to the sun. Dress of Opening and Close of Being, made especially for the exhibition, is a seven-foot tall female figure in a brimmed hat and gown with flowing train.
These figures, as their titles convey, are based on words; indeed, the words are rendered in wire or steel to build image, literally creating form from language. As the artist has said, "Language is the touchstone, the pivot point of all my work." The poetry of Emily Dickinson was an early inspiration for Dill as a child, and Dickinson has remained a constant reference point for Dill's work since 1990. Dickinson's poems are incorporated in Dill's works as broken lines and text fragments in much the same way as Gertrude Stein used language fragments in her work, as Thurz Nichols Goodeve notes in the exhibition catalogue. Dill also borrows texts from Franz Kafka and the Catalan poet Salvador Espriu.
Dill's trips to India were also formative, both in the terms of materials and in the sense of spirituality that pervades all of her work. In her first stay in New Delhi in the early 1990s, she noticed that words were everywhere - on bodies, in mantras, in chants, songs and prayer flags. She was attracted by Hindi script, but because she could not read it, it became pure pattern, which she found liberating, because she did not have to consider the meaning of the words themselves, only their aesthetic energy. Words are a constant motif in Dill's work, as are leaves, especially oak leaves, which to the artist are equivalent to skin and to words. Leaves appear in a number of works in the exhibition including Voice, an upside down figure, consisting of a torso with legs and streams of leaves spilling in a cascade from its interior. In Breathing Leaves a contrail of leaves fans out from the back of a figure seated in a chair.
Vision, ecstasy, and bliss are recurrent themes in Dill's work. Ecstasy is a bronze kneeling figure with a long swath of orange horsehair, into which "ecstasy" is stitched flaring out on either side. The sculpture Rise, one of the largest works in the exhibition, also suggests the bliss of meditation, as twenty foot-long red banners with texts stream outward and upward from a central figure. Divide Light 2 (Healing Man) is a kitelike figure made from Japanese kozo paper and based on Asian medical figures mapped with healing and pressure points. The poem fragment inscribed on the figure "Divide light if you dare" comes from Dickinson's poem "Banish Air from Air." Divide Light is also the title of Dill's new opera (2008) with music by composer Richard Marriott, which uses Dickinson's poems, Dill's costumes for the performers, and projected images to celebrate and investigate American Transcendentalism.
A native of New England, Dill currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Dill's work is internationally recognized, and her work has been widely shown both in solo and group exhibitions. She is represented in many American museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the High Museum (Atlanta) and the Smith College Museum of Art. The exhibition of I Heard a Voice at SCMA is supported by the Judith Plesser Targan, class of 1953, Art Museum Fund and the Tryon Associates.