March 2015, Brooklyn, NY: Lesley Dill works in sculpture, photography, and performance, using a range of media and methods to explore themes of language, the body, and what it means to be transformed by an experience. She recently participated in Beautiful Beast at the New York Academy of Art, an exhibition that explored the intersection of beauty and abjection through sculpture, often depicting our humanity through distortion. I am always interested in work that defies disciplinary boundaries and convention, and Dill’s keen fondness for words drove my curiosity about her work even more. I met with the artist at her home and studio in downtown Brooklyn recently where we discussed representations of the feminine and masculine in culture, mentorship in the art world, faith, and of course words.
Big Gal Faith, Installation view from Faith & the Devil, Travelling exhibition
Lesley Dill: Over the years I’ve made dress forms in various materials—paper, fabric, metal. I don’t think of the dress image as sentimental or pretty. It is a shape. I love Martin Puryear’s dedication to form. In my dress sculptures, I compress the bodice into fragility and open the skirt wide. The delicacy of the top invites intimacy, but defies familiarity because the expansion of the edge creates a boundary.
What changed my thoughts about gender presentation was when [my husband] Ed got a job in New Delhi in 1990, and I went with him. In New York we sculptors wore jeans, tight black t-shirts and work boots. In India, no one dressed like that—even the women who broke rocks for highways wore skirts. My friends who were lawyers and doctors wore either saris or salwar kameez. The look was very, very feminine. We lived there for two years, and that’s when I really began to associate femininity with power.
Lee Ann Norman: I don’t think we have that same sensibility here.
LD: No. Since living there, I’ve stopped wearing pants and only wear dresses. I was so influenced by that time in India. The interest in femininity and forcefulness is something that lasted for me.
LAN: Can you tell me a little more about words as armor, how that came into being when you started making the dress forms and adding words? It’s making me think of Islamic art where so much of it is based in calligraphy because to make an image of God would be considered blasphemous.
LD Muslim warriors in the 18th century would go into battle and have a prayer to Allah engraved on their armor, and thus be protected by an amulet of words. Historically, there’s not been much protective armor for women. So what does that mean? Are we not battle heroes to be protected? Think of the woman character [Brienne of Tarth] in the TV series Game of Thrones—she’s fantastic—big and strong, and she’s armored, yet still a girl. My metal linguistic dresses are perforated with solids of metal words and spaces where they are wired together. Clothing, like language, selectively conceals and reveals.
Divide Light, Opera, 2008, Still from performance of Divide Light, Montalvo Art Center, San Jose
LAN: You weren’t part of the first wave of women who were busting through barriers and fighting against a white male dominated art world, but you were here in New York in the 80s and 90s. At the time, many artists were making "postmodern" and "neo-conceptual" work, but you were making artwork that was bumping against traditional notions of what women and women’s art was supposed to be. How was that work received? Did you feel that people understood what it was you were trying to do?
LD: I think they did. I’ve been lucky. One of the luckiest things is having had older friends who were my mentors like Nancy Spero and [her husband] Leon [Golub], and Arlene Raven (who was Nancy Grossman’s partner). Nancy would say, “Never belittle yourself or your art work. Don’t get fat.” [laughs] “And always wear eye shadow.” In her artwork, all of the heroic figures are women.
What started my larger female sculptures was the opera I did called Divide Light (2008). It changed my work. The opera was based on Emily Dickinson’s tremendous wide-ranging poetry. I began to understand scale, themes, and the nuanced forthrightness of language. The idea of being visually immersed in language became available to me because of my interest in sound, and I put giant words on the background scrim.
In 2010 I was invited to do a gallery installation in New Orleans by Arthur Roger Gallery, and when I thought about what to do as a theme, I remembered this incredible artist whose paintings I’d seen at the American Folk Art Museum in 2004. Her name was Sister Gertrude Morgan. I researched her and found Bill Fagley’s book on her called The Tools of Her Ministry. I thought: Wow! What a woman. She died in 1986, and I wanted to honor her. When she was a minister for the orphanage, early in her life, she wore only black, but then one day she had a vision that she was to be the bride of Jesus. She went from wearing all black to wearing all white the rest of her life after that. I made her a beautiful wedding dress. It’s loaded with words—the language of glory from many different poets. She wrote: “My heart shall not fear though war should rise against me.”
Installation view of Hell Hell Hell / Heaven Heaven Heaven: Encountering Sister Gertrude Morgan & Revelation, 2010, at Arthur Roger Gallery
LAN: I was thinking about how to trace your trajectory. I read somewhere that when you were young, you were ill a lot and so you read because there was nothing else to do.
LD: I did…I had lots of colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma. Did you read a lot?
LAN: I did. When I was a kid, I would spend all of my money that I saved on books and write little stories in my notebooks.
LD: Do you read a lot now?
LAN: I try. When I was in graduate school, I would save the summers to read fiction—no theory books, just fiction—and that time lead me to a wonderful book group here where I’ve discovered some great texts.
LD: I think people are reading less and less. I interviewed an intern once and asked her what she was reading. She told me that she didn’t really read. This was unimaginable to me, as I am such a proponent of reading. You see these symbols on a page and experience the magic that happens when an entire movie comes up in your mind—it’s a world made flesh.
The artist's Brooklyn studio
LAN: For people like us—people who use multiple media to express ideas—this makes so much sense. You, for example started out using reading as a way of thinking, then you began to form images from that, and finally began adding other layers of movement and sound to build on that meaning.
LD: Yes! I watch TV and all of that, but I wonder what’s going to happen with reading.
LAN: I don’t think it’s going anywhere. Think about the evolution of printed media—people worried about the death of the newspaper. We’ve figured out how to use technology and incorporate it into the things that we want and desire. We’ve kept the ability to create an image of our own, learned how to fulfill the desire to spend time really digging into a topic or subject…I think people have figured out how to keep those qualities while using the technologies available.
You mentioned Emily Dickinson prompted you to explore language and integrate that into all of the sensations, images, and feelings you had. How do you choose language and text? Do you write yourself?
LD: Words don’t rise up in me the way art imagery does. I wish I could write, but what I can do is recognize what is impactful for me. I find that I’m able to collect and weave phrases and words. The experience is fairly intense for me. When I first started reading Dickinson, I had a visionary experience. The words lifted off the page and flew down inside of me and started creating images for artwork. I thought: Oh my goodness! I have this magic book. I was poetically monogamous for seven years to Emily Dickinson. Working with her words taught me what affects me. After that, I expanded. I have a stack of books that I’ve dog-eared in my bedroom, and I go through them. The most recent phrase in my mind is from Faulkner. It goes: Breathe of the Devil—Risethe eyes from deep quiet into glory.
Poem Dress for a Hermaphrodite, 1995
LAN: Earlier you were talking about every woman having a little man inside of her and every man having a little woman inside of him. You have been poking at these conventions—traditional Western notions of masculinity and femininity—throughout your career. Can you talk a little more about how that’s playing out in your work now that you want to make a shift to focusing your work on men?
LD: Most days I know I am a woman, but some days I feel as if I am a man, and I wonder if other people feel like that too. In my new work, right now, I feel moved to make more guys.
LAN: You’ve also made some photographs. Did you start out as a photographer?
LD: No. I started as a sculptor, but when I found the word, I realized that if I have language, I can go anywhere, make anything, do photography, sculpture, drawing, performance. Now I think there is such permission for young artists to go in all directions. There wasn’t that much permission when I was doing it, but I did it anyway.
LAN: Yes, I feel like that’s the key—the word is the idea, and that gives people the freedom to express layers of meaning in different ways.
LD: Right because you can hold on to it—it is evanescent yet tangible.
A Word Made Flesh – Throat, Landfall Press 1992
LAN: You also talked a little bit about being open to grace, having practiced Hindu and Buddhist meditation for many, many years. How does that come into your work?
LD: My most recent exhibitions are about a wide morality—what’s evil, what’s good, and who’s talking about it. I feel that yes, there is evil in the world and evil and ill will are in each of us. We can’t point fingers and say that those people are so mean to each other over there in Rwanda, for example, or that they’re not like us. They are like us. In terms of “grace,” there are moments of wonder in an artwork, in a moment. That in my mind is grace—grace in the midst of complexity. As in this quote from Kafka that goes, “Faith, like a guillotine. As heavy, as light.”
LAN: I think it takes a conscious effort to move through life in a way where you are acknowledging other people and trying to connect with them, trying to have integrity, doing what you need to do without hurting anybody, but I think we’re searching for ways to do that. As an artist-writer-creative, I think it’s a little taboo to talk about these things.
LD: Taboo, but compelling.
ArtSlant would like to thank Lesley Dill for her assistance in making this interview possible.
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