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Up East, Down Home



For her 40th birthday, Lesley Dill's mother gave her a volume of Emily Dickinson's poetry. It changed her life. A New Englander raised in Maine, Dill could relate to the Amherst, Mass., laureate's quirky syntax, her way of lurching from one thought to another in phrases that might seem disjointed were they not so fraught with intimations of revelation. For Dill it was personal; her father was a schizophrenic with his own way of using language, or as she put it: "I grew up in a psychically bilingual family never knowing when a word would contain another meaning."

Given to visions early on, she took up mantra meditation in which words or phrases are repeated, and spent time in India and Nepal, fascinated by their vivid languages and art forms -- traces of which, along with fragments of Emily Dickinson, appear in her work. Her new show builds on those themes. Blue Frida, a wall sculpture, suggests outlines of a figure on a bench. Cobbled from cut and stitched blue fabric, its surface displays barely legible block letters in black ink: "You cannot fold a flood." If this sounds like poetic dissociation, it is, in fact, from Dickinson's "You Cannot Put a Fire Out." ("You cannot fold a flood/And put it in a drawer/Because the winds would find it out/And tell your cedar floor.")

Radiance is a frontal silhouette of a head and shoulders made from pale-colored felt cut in the shape of letters. Look closely and the letters, jumbled on top of each other, spell out the word "Radiance." Look again, and other words seem to emerge, such as "Danger" or "Dancer." (Metaphors for ecstasy?) In Still, a very large, 9-by-30-foot piece, words high on the wall trail long streamers like horse tails. One line reads, "I still half believed that a word could save me," which sounds almost generic. Another line, "Faith, like a guillotine, as heavy as light," resonates Dickinsonian sensibilities, but it's actually from Franz Kafka. Apparently, Dill wants us to take nothing for granted. But that may also be said of the show as a whole, which, if less dramatic than some of her previous productions, is still representative of this thoughtful artist's oeuvre.

In contrast to Dill's metaphysical riddles, painter and fabric artist Gina Phillips takes us back to her old Kentucky home in Plucked ... From Thin Air. Subtitled Songs and Stories About Suspended Characters, it reflects her naturalistic approach to paintings and soft sculptures that suggest subtle yet succinct slices of life. For instance, in Stud we see a horse, presumably a stallion, in a field with a winding stone wall. In the sky above, two hummingbirds do battle in mid-air as the stallion's daydreams appear as visions of a triumphal finish at the Kentucky Derby.

Thinking About Happy Puppies is another bucolic vista with one of Phillips' weirdly portentous hummingbirds, splashes of blossoms, and what looks like a cocker spaniel bounding through the bushes, all rendered in brightly colored fabric with frizzy red fringe like some sort of warped hill country folk art. If all that sounds suspiciously sweet, things get more expressionistic in works such as Fly By in which a youthful, country-style mom (you know the sort -- pale skin and Scots-Irish features) sits with her flaxen-haired child, both grinning vacantly at the sun-shiny day as a big, old, white bird lies sprawled, feet-in-the-air dead, right there in front of them like an evil omen to which they remain blissfully oblivious. (Middle Americans are masters of denial, are they not?) But things get gnarlier in the guitar cases. The Yellow Temptress is a rainbow of a painted and embroidered case for a Gibson ES333, but the back features a red-haired mom in a yellow dress with her baby under a bare light bulb, both looking about as chipper as a Georg Grosz painting. It's a vintage Phillips blend of whimsy and social realism, and while this show overall may not be as theatrical as some in the past, Phillips is dispensing a bit more subtlety amid the cornpone and hill country humor. As an exploration of Appalachian themes and sensibilities, the country-western soundtrack is implicit.

Lesley Dill's Radiance illustrates her fondness for mantra meditation in which words are repeated, for different words keep showing up on repeated viewings.
  • Lesley Dill's Radiance illustrates her fondness for mantra meditation in which words are repeated, for different words keep showing up on repeated viewings.

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