BY Jenni Sorkin in Reviews | 07 SEP 07

Lesley Dill


BY Jenni Sorkin in Reviews | 07 SEP 07

Much has been made of the circumstances of Emily Dickinson's life: her isolation, her obscurity and, in recent years, her homosexuality. Regardless of her strange and reclusive life, it is the subversive elements of her verse that remain startling nearly 120 years after her death, her invention of an intensely original form, but in particular, her content; her fiery, bitter love poems, her obsession with death, and her darkly sexual nature imagery. Like another American poet, Robert Frost, Dickinson's body of work has been continually misconstrued as life-affirming, joyous and spiritually inclined. Lesley Dill has made her own art practice the visual repository of Dickinson's oeuvre, saturating her entire body of work with broken stanzas and fragments of poetry. What Dill has in common with her muse is an obsession with the intricacies of form and tone, using a range of deceptively simple materials such as ink, muslin, wire and thread painstakingly to render the silences and shadows found in the poet's language. Wire Wall of Words (1995) is literally that: a mural-sized poem fashioned out of a continuous bolt of wire, in a legible but unsteady hand, so that the poem reads as a scrawled and frantic tract, like that of a prisoner or patient desperate to be heard. 'The soul has bandaged moments/When too appalled to stir/She feels some ghastly fright come up/And stop to look at her.' Hung from the wall, the sculpture looms large, a curtain of words doubled through its cast shadow. This ten-year, mid-career survey of Dill's work includes a range of mixed media objects, from free-standing, crispy rice paper dresses to artists' books and photo collages. Like Lorna Simpson and Barbara Kruger, Dill combines text and photographic images, but in a non-politicized manner, adding reworked charcoal surfaces to her fragmented female bodies, joining eyes, mouths, heads and backs with Dickinson's sensuous, sometimes archaic, language. Some combinations work better than others. I Am Alone Like a Tunnel (all works 2000), for example, is handwritten above an image of a slender fist inserting itself into the open mouth of a black man. A reverse penetration, the image is edgy, provocative and racially charged. Other images are undermined less by the poetry paired with them than by their titles, which have blatant connections to outmoded notions of genius, such as Visionary, Vision-Catcher and Seer. Dill's assemblages can be positioned somewhere between Kiki Smith's doomed, visceral Caucasian body and Ellen Gallagher's politicized black female body. In Dill's work wooden torsos are turned upside down, spewing shapes of words, and heads swarm with unblinking enlarged eyes. Using wax, smoky pastels, sheer fabrics and gossamer papers, her tactility is ultimately so compelling and seductive that you can forgive its sentimentality. The connection between language and the body is not a new one, but her sculptural vocabulary is highly articulated, engorged with a sumptuous materiality. There is always a gap between art and language. The rich emotional life of a poem can sometimes overpower its visual counterpart, but the reverse can also sometimes be the case. In this Dill takes risks and sometimes fails but, rather than falling into the trap of illustration, her sculptures continually eradicate the need for textual meaning.