Haunting and Handmade: “The Strange Experience of Beauty”
Published 01/29/2010 - 12:07 a.m. CDT
“Mouthful of Words”

Lesley Dill at Byron Cohen Gallery

Reviewed by Steve Shapiro

Of the many words used by critics, curators and art-goers to describe contemporary art—such as angry, baffling, cryptic, daring, extravagant and exasperating—the word haunting gets little play. Perhaps it is because so much of today’s work has a mass-produced feel, or no feel at all.

Modernism was predicated in part on an industrial, almost clinical, quality; the warmth of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings were overtaken by the cold porcelain of Duchamp’s urinal and the mechanical engineering of Cubism. Art since the twentieth century has come to mean anything, yet often unconnected to the idea (and the ideal) of the artist’s hand.

The sense of art that proves most haunting is art with a human touch. A Vermeer portrait, suffused with the artist’s personal intent (combined with technical prowess), can thus be linked to, say, Giacometti’s sculptures with their evidence of puttied fingerprints, and to Hannah Höch’s collages, onward to Joseph Cornell’s boxes, Richard Serra’s torqued steel arcs, and Lesley Dill’s hands-on works of copper, wire, steel, horsehair, rice paper, and thread.

Lesley Dill, whose show “The Strange Experience of Beauty” opened at the Byron Cohen Gallery, in the Crossroads District, on January 8th (continuing through March 24th), evinces a careful, cryptic glow, utilizing both language and image.

Her works, some with backgrounds of Indian newspapers from trips abroad or combining mass media, cast a haunting quality that issues from piece to piece. Dill’s art mysteries work for rather than against them unlike so much contemporary art that is handmade but hermetic. One feels as if one was somehow looking over her shoulder as she created her art.

This show represents, as its title suggests, the artist’s search for beauty through messages and materials. A small quasi-retrospective—small given that Dill has been working since the early Eighties in both solo and group shows, amassing strengths in sculpture, poetry, performance art, printmaking, silkscreening, installations, photography, and her unique wire-and-paper skirts—but representative of her themes.

Dill’s degrees in literature and philosophy have guided her style; quotations, from her muse Emily Dickinson as well as from Kafka, form the core of her work. Quotes appear on the foreheads of portraits (“The Strange Experience of Beauty”); down the back of a painted life-size nude male (“Word Made Flesh”); or, as in “Mouthful of Words,” written on streamers shooting out of a subject’s open mouth.

The quotes form a poetic framework for the compositions to convey the artist’s ambiguities. (Without them the prints and paintings would verge on government posters or advertising billboards.)

Dickinson, in particular, has proven to be a well-worn modernist muse. Misunderstood in her lifetime (and for sometime thereafter) and scarcely published, many critics contend much of Dickinson’s poetry was created out of her correspondence. All of it, as one biographer, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, has written, revolves “around her use of language, and her attitude toward words—their power and their limitation.”

Dill uses Dickinson as a way into the images; if some works recall one another it is because they overlap, either verbally or visually. We speak so frequently without thinking that, like the words on the streamers in “Mouthful of Words,” when we say something meaningful the words (and the thoughts behind them) may be shocking: in her prints, paintings, and photographs, Lesley Dill effects a sense of wonder about the power of language.

Dill’s style of pairing words with artist’s materials–delivered with an unique handmade touch--permeates her art. In a more personal manner than either Jenny Holzer’s abstract aphorisms on LED signs or Ed Ruscha’s ironic Pop paintings of iconic words re-imagined visually.

For those artists, language is a part of art. For Lesley Dill, language is first; as philosophy and literature--the creation of the two mediums into one–is used as an expression of her belief in the human spirit. It explains the Gothic eeriness of her work: it is meant to inhabit the viewer the way it does the artist. Unlike a Ruscha painting where the viewer sees nothing, deliberately, of the person who is the artist: giving his work a one-dimensional flatness.

In pieces like “Face Pull” (a photograph of a woman’s head with the phrase “Words—Riders on the back of silence” written alongside and beneath her, with actual threads pulling out of the back) and the elegant centerpiece of the show, “Poem Dress of Circulation” (a large yellow dress composed of fragile paper, with strips of quotations running vertically across), Dill literally gives words new meaning.

And not only language; in her use of everyday material and traditional mediums, Dill approaches our traditional expectations of painting and photography without restraint.

Like Kafka, who made the short story into a nightmare, and Dickinson, who made her own private style of writing into poetry, in Dill’s handiwork a photograph is threaded with new intent, a copper plate is remade into a silkscreened image, and a photo collage on Hindi newsprint takes the whole idea of language as something foreign, both to read and to see.
To listen to her—itself another component of her word-based art.

As part of the exhibition, Barbara O’Brien, the curator for the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, will be speaking at the Byron Cohen Gallery, at 2020 Baltimore, on Saturday, February 6th, at 1:15 p.m. (For information, call 816-421-5665.)