Mar 16 00 by Published in: Reviews No comments yet

Encountering the work of artist Lesley Dill is to move in the spaces between what our senses reveal.

In is in this intangible in-betweenness, moving beyond what words and images can literally say, is where Dill finds her inspiration.

The exhibit “Lesley Dill: Word and Image” at Lebanon Valley College is a powerful melding of poetry and flesh that is at once painfully striking and as ethereal as mist.

The exhibit which runs through April 16 in the college’s Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery weaves a broad range of materials, from bronze and muslin to copper and horsehair to suggest different aspects of the body.

At times, skin is simply suggested by staining rice paper with teabags and then crinkling it to resemble flesh. In other pieces, a body is photographed and reproduced on fabric.

In each piece, the primacy of the written word is apparent as lines of poetry are boldly stamped or delicately sewn across the surface. In many of the photographs, the poems were directly written on the bodies of the models, then reemphasized by sewing the poem again into the fabric of the piece.

In all but two of the works, the poetry is Emily Dickinson’s. How the poetry appears is entirely different though. At times each letter is sewn, trailing long strands of thread down the body of the piece. At other times, the words are cut out, paper doll fashion, into a chain that comes spewing out of a mouth like a ribbon. Sometimes the letters appear as disparate as in a ransom note, strung together with wire or seeming to have been burned into the work. And in one piece, letters are simply suggested with the position of hands in a sign language.

Although she’s not the first artist to marry words and images, there is something more at work here than the usual political rant or clever poke at pop culture. The power of Dickinson’s work is heightened in these pieces making them even larger and more haunting.

“What more canonized poetry is there than Emily Dickinson,” said gallery director and exhibition curator Leo Mazow. “But here it’s given a new voice.”

And arguably a fresh relevance.

For instance, Dill takes Dickinson’s poem “A Word made Flesh is seldom spoke” and sews it with horsehair onto a tea-stained rice paper dress that resembles weathered skin. Dickinson’s words appear literally made into flesh _ and the entire piece plays with both the pun and the trope on the incarnation of Christ.

In another, a mixed media photographic work “A Though Went Up My Mind Today,” lines from Dickinson’s poem are scrawled across the figure’s back, which appears to be filleted. It is almost as if the power of the words are pulling the skin off to reveal a vulnerability of muscle and sinew and nerves.

There is an organic quality to the work, from the reliance on the images of the body, to the use of natural materials, to the actual rendering of the pieces by sewing cloth and hair or twisting wire.

As such, the works seem fragile, and ready to dissolve or unravel at any moment.

In many pieces, it is the words that seem to serve as a protection to the transitory nature of these materials and of the body itself. Dill has stated that she thinks of poetry “as a kind of spiritual armor.”

But of course, words are themselves transitory and fleeting.

It is this dichotomy, the power and frailty of both words and images that is so interesting to Dill. She allows us to feel the full range of sensations simultaneously in her work.

This is most apparent in the artist’s book “The Thrill Came Slowly.”

“You don’t really understand the fragility of language until you spend 10 minutes turning the page of a book,” said Mazow. “Believe me, the thrill came slowly. This is a slow read.”

Constructed from delicate, diaphanous materials that are almost too fragile to touch, the book appears ready to disintegrate at any moment.

“Words are not easily grasped in this book,” said Mazow. “It sabotages the very act of reading.”

But still, the images and poetry meld to form a satisfying, rich whole, he said.

“For Dill it is in the awkward, curiously loud turning of the page, the literal space between the pages and between binding and sheet, that meaning lies.”


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