Let's face it: Artists have had a fairly tortuous relationship with words, especially in recent decades when postmodern theorists were sometimes invoked to lend intellectual gravitas by association. Leslie Dill was always a refreshing exception. Much of her work employing actual lines of Emily Dickinson's spare, whimsical, chastely twisted verse seemed to reflect something of the Amherst spinster's own ghostly spirit reborn in three dimensions. But this new show, Word Queens, is another matter. Methinks there is much that is non-Dickinsonian about it. Is it some kind of experiment? The press release announces that, because the show is in New Orleans, 'Dill is making the gallery space into a "Word Party' with the ceiling and walls bedecked with "Word Garlands' and "Suspended Crowns.'" That sounds like a Mardi Gras ball, but would Emily, the prim homebody, approve? Dill hedges her bets by adding the more flamboyant Pablo Neruda, among others, to the mix of poets. Neruda is a wonderful poet, but he really doesn't inhabit the same space as Dickinson, or Dill's earlier work for that matter. He might not have felt any more comfortable with the royal overtones of Word Queens than Emily would. In fact, the whole thing suggests a drag ball of disembodied prose, an effect that can be disorienting.
Maybe it's just the shock of the seemingly abrupt transition from Dickinsonian introversion to the new extroversion. Dill's last local show featured her familiar wall hangings, ethereal constructions of paper, cloth, horsehair and thread that possessed the visual delicacy of ancient papyrus texts. Sure, the embedded or incised words were often not very legible, but their delicacy drew you in with an aura of revelation like a barely legible message in a bottle. The new works such as Word Queen of Copper Letters, a freestanding 7-foot-tall construction of copper and wire over a steel armature, have a more aggressively human presence, with metal words congealed into something like armor. If you were afraid to get near Dill's earlier pieces because their delicacy was intimidating, these look like they could draw blood.
So how did we get from the former introversion to the operatic extroversion of the current works? A mutual friend informs me that Dill is in fact working on pieces for an unusual opera of sorts, and opera is an extroverted medium. Their metal forms, which remind me of those wire garden concoctions that some people use as trellises, can also be seen as delicate, beautifully crafted apparitions from a faerie fiefdom, or something like that. Altogether, they make for an interesting spectacle, and they are finely crafted, no doubt about it. Yet somehow this recalls Bob Dylan going electric after years on the folk circuit, and fans had to decide if that worked for them or not. Here the jury may still be out, but there are fair arguments on both sides, so check it out and decide for yourself.
More striking contrasts appear in Rain of Huitzilopochtli, James Drake's large-scale charcoal drawings on canvas and paper in the adjacent chambers. Executed in a traditional drawing style, they take their cues from the Aztec god whose name means 'Blue Hummingbird." Associated with war and storms, Huitzilopochtli was given human sacrifices when the Aztecs prayed for rain, and some of the human figures seen in these fashionably frayed and distressed drawings do sometimes seem vaguely sacrificial in a fairly metaphoric sense. Others are more oddly suggestive of random portraits, lending an ambiguity to the overall enterprise. The poetic delicacy of these works contrasts with the sturm und drang of Drake's heavy metal sculpture of a decade or more ago, but here the evolution has been more gradual. As with Dill, everything is admirably finely crafted, including the fashionably random tatters, which appear in exactly the 'right" places.