New York

Lesley Dill

For the past several years, Lesley Dill has been incorporating poems by Emily Dickinson into her work and using many of the techniques of traditional 19th-century homecraft (dyeing, weaving, dressmaking, and needlework) in its creation. Her “Voices in My Head” features work inspired by Buddhist prayer flags she observed while living in India. Twelve-foot-long hanging cloths of muslin or gauze, stained with tea, shellac, or both, feature photo-silkscreens of despairing male and female faces or nudes, with snatches of Dickinson’s poems crudely stitched, stamped, or painted over the torso or face or stamped in block print below. In 4 Poem Figure (all works 1995), Dickinson’s words are branded into a giant cloth with a hot poker; Wire Poem features a single Dickinson poem, “A Soul Has Bandaged Moments,” sculpted in a continuous lacy web of copper wire that covered an entire wall.

The materials and techniques suggested a confrontation between brutality and gentility. The slowly waving banners of tea-stained muslin (a fan placed in the gallery had the incidental effect of providing a breeze) recalled both the gowns worn by women in the mid-1800s and the windblown prayer banners of India and Nepal; at the same time, the violent use of materials (texts scrawled over bodies and branded into fabric; hanks of thread stitched onto foreheads) suggested anger, violence, and protest. By uniting violent and disturbing imagery with metaphysical poetry and traditional homecraft through the visual metaphor of a modified prayer banner, Dill suggests that Dickinson’s words are the muted prayers of a victim. The result is a new form of tapestry: pancultural in its references, didactic in its political message, and inconclusive in its presentation.

The appropriation of Emily Dickinson’s words in the work, though, is troubling if not downright problematic, and the multicultural references in her latest show make her use of Dickinson less comprehensible. The Dickinson texts seem too much themselves, too important in their own right to be subsumed into the work of another, whatever the merits of doing so might be. The risk of appropriating genius is always, of course, in the comparison such arrogation inevitably invites.

Justin Spring