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Lesley Dill’s Poetic Visions

Lesley Dill is one of the most prominent contemporary American artists working at the intersection of language and fine art. Experimenting with a wide range of tactile materials, she fuses poetic text and images to create evocative, mixed-media artworks and performances. Inspired by her two-year sojourn in India and the illuminating aspects of diverse faith traditions, Dill interprets relationships between the physical and the spiritual. Her expressive artworks, layered with multiple meanings, also reference nature and human identity.

This exhibition features two bodies of the artist’s work. “HELL HELL HELL/HEAVEN HEAVEN HEAVEN: Encountering Sister Gertrude Morgan and Revelation” is inspired by the life of an influential New Orleans missionary, artist, and musician. Dill connected with Morgan’s artistry, particularly her integration of text and image, and her strength as a leader and woman of firm convictions. The artist conceives of her installation as a theatrical stage set. Two lavish gowns represent stages of the missionary’s life: before and after she became the “bride of Christ.” The dresses are surrounded by heroically scaled drawings that reflect Morgan’s frenetic, passionate preaching style and text by Morgan as well as one of Dill’s favorite poets, Emily Dickinson.

The second body of work features “Shimmer,” a 60 foot “curtain” composed of 2,190,000 feet of fine wire that forms a silvery cascade, suggesting the dazzling reflections of light off the Atlantic Ocean. This waterfall-like wall piece descends from a fragment of a mystical poem by the Catalan poet Salvador Espriu. Also, shown as part of this installation are five “Allegorical Figures.” Costumed in glistening metal foil, organza, and wire, “each figure presents an existential conundrum,” according to the artist. Referencing the elements as well as mythological figures in art history, they carry language that situates the viewer in the present and invites deeper interpretation.

“Lesley Dill is an artist alchemist,” says JSMA executive director Jill Hartz. “She aims to create an environment within the gallery in which visitors encounter or connect with a spiritual self or place through a very specifically created form and selection of words. Paradoxically, she uses language to go beyond language, form to find formlessness. And she does it with powerfully beautiful artworks.”

Lesley Dill was born in Bronxville, New York, and raised in Maine. After graduating from Trinity College with a degree in English, she received her master of arts in teaching from Smith College in 1974, and her master of fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1980. The artist soon moved to New York, where she emerged prominently as a sculptor and multi-media artist. Dill has also made significant contributions as a performance artist, and aspects of theater inform the pieces exhibited in this exhibition. Nationally recognized, Dill has shown her work in numerous solo exhibitions across the country. Her artworks are in the collections of over fifty museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The artist lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She is represented by the Arthur Rogers Gallery in New Orleans and the George Adams Gallery in New York City.

The exhibition is organized by Barbara Matilsky, curator, Whatcom Museum, Washington, and made possible at the JSMA by the Coeta and Donald Barker Changing Exhibitions Endowment Fund and JSMA members.