Several years back, I was on a gallery hunt in NYC to look at artwork that spoke of feminist issues that were currently at the surface. Sculptor, mixed media and performance artist Lesley Dill (b. 1950, now living in Brooklyn, NY) was having a solo show, Voices in My Head, at George Adams. Part of the installation showcased eight pieces of 12′ long muslin cloths, sepia-dyed or tea-stained, and featuring frontally-positioned figurative subjects with poems of Emily Dickinson painted on their torsos, body, foreheads, palms – or printed on the fabric itself in a primitive typeface/block-print style.
The successful communication of Dill’s poetic decipherings of Emily Dickinson to the viewer is completely reliant on the concept of image-centering. Rolled Up Poem Girl (mixed mediums on muslin, 156″ x 45″) second from right above, seems inherently problematic, as Dill’s imaging reinforces the stereotypes of colonialism: a nude, frontally-positioned Hindu female spirally covered in bodily-painted texts of a late Romantic period WASP poet from Amherst. Dill is manipulating her image production as an attempted rupture of typical associations the viewer likely holds of American Protestantism – text on a minority female’s body as subversive theatreplace for Dickinson’s poetry. Could Dill’s imaging possibly have been sympathetic to writer/critic Camille Paglia’s thesis: that Dickinson conjures up images of sexualized pleasure/pain, thereby “Catholicizing” the austerity of American Protestantism? [Sexual Personae. (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 629].
As an object, Dill’s work becomes a battleground. Are the attractive, sensual qualities in the warm tints of the tea-soaked fabric still a formal reinforcement to the fetishized, objectified female? Rather – one could view her formal decisions of using a nude female and domestic-associative media (such as cloth and thread) as the object’s assertion that is is valid as an object, based on its ennobling choice of domestic materials.
Currently, Lesley Dill’s new work is the subject of a show at the Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, Washington through March 4, 2012. Poetic Visions: From Shimmer to Sister Gertrude Morgan, shows Dill’s multifaceted approach to choosing art mediums, as witnessed by this installation that features pieces of Dill’s now famous display tactic of the “dress” piece, alongside metallic sculpture.
(Images courtesy of George Adams Gallery, New York.)