Traces of Living

LESLEY Dill leaves me guessing. The nature of her work is secretive. She may give us a look at something big, a shape like a figure, but it is really an apparition.

Once we get close, get inside, the work slips through our fingers and we are in the dark. What we are left with is a residue hanging in the air like perfume or smoke.

What this artist does could be defined as relief: sculpture that hangs on the wall. But she also does free-standing work, pieces on paper, and prints.

The way the reliefs hang on the wall, like old clothes, suggests a figure, but no figure is present. The shape she works is not a rectangle; and this is not some formalist dialogue.

Instead, she makes a party dress of paper or a pair of copper gloves, and they become her canvas. A tired suit she fashions of wire mesh and hair becomes her armature.

This is haunting work. It has the quality of something old, something waiting in the attic to be discovered, something for us to find and cherish the meaning of. Lesley Dill wants us to understand something.

And always, there is poetry somewhere in the work - words scratched, a letter at a time, as if they were cut into a park bench with a pen knife.

The significance of the words may be unclear, but we can grasp them by taking them in with the work - letters and words resembling tiny images, sign language, strung together like paper dolls.

The words themselves are not Dill's, but the poet Emily Dickinson's. Dill has resurrected her poetry and passed on it like a torch.

Indeed, the words literally seem to burn into the work. The emotional intensity invested in this work is as painful at times as it is radiant.

The use of text in art seems almost ridiculously requisite to be cutting edge these days, but it isn't new. Picasso was doing it over 80 years ago.

Still, Dill uses words a little differently. It is hard to pinpoint, but you can feel it. Maybe it is because she has appropriated them the way Picasso did journal, the French word for newspaper. Maybe it is the sheer weight of Dickinson's genius. Whatever it is, the results are strangely illegible, as though Dill didn't want us to read the words in the first place, but to swallow them whole.

That's the way her work is. The party dress is a glass of experience; drink it down and you'll get it. The shapes are part vessel, part veil. They loosely contain her expression, as precious at times as flower petals or dragonfly wings, and as fleeting as a rolling summer mist.

Lesley Dill's work amounts to something like a stain on the parlor sofa - a resonance trapped in an empty shell, a mark where something happened. This lamentation is part of her work.

And yet, if one is listening, these traces of living speak volumes.

* `New Editions,' a show featuring the work of Lesley Dill and Allison Saar, will be on exhibition at the Bernard Toale Gallery in Boston from Sept. 8 to Oct. 8.

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