Lesley Dill’s Graphicstudio Billboards

ArtPop Tampa‘s exciting billboard project will go live next week! It is wonderful to read about the selected artists and get a first glimpse at the artwork we will soon be seeing across the Tampa Bay area. The excitement about billboard art from coast to coast has us looking back on a Graphicstudio billboard project from 1998. Here is an abridged version of Joseph Ruzicka’s look at Lesley Dill’s Public Edition in Art in America, February 1999.

Drive-by Poetry

Aiming to reach the broader public, Lesley Dill designed a series of poetic,
visually provocative billboards in Florida.

By Joseph Ruzicka

Beginning in February 1998 and continuing for half a year, four billboard-sized black-and-white prints by Lesley Dill appeared in various locations in the Tampa, Fla., environs. Enigmatic and sober against the lush tropical landscape, these billboards are part of Dill’s plan to bring high-minded art to the uninitiated public-at-large. Although she has regularly shown her sculpture within the usual gallery and museum network, she also seeks to make interacting with art a daily event for the average person. Dill’s efforts in this direction stem from her desire to interject visual-art issues into mainstream American conversation, which has long included popular music and movies, for example. Billboards, seen along the highway from a car, are the perfect means to this end. The four examples presented by Dill constitute the inaugural project in Public Editions, an ongoing public-art program sponsored by Graphicstudio/USF, a print workshop affiliated with the University of South Florida in Tampa., Current plans call for Dill’s billboards to be installed at various other locations in Florida as space and time permit, with a possible national tour to follow.

These saw visions

The Dill project germinated several years ago when the artist spoke with Graphicstudio director Hank Hine about making giant-format prints using her signature combination of photographic images and poetry excerpts. In a collaborative effort involving artist, printmaker and billboard owner, text and image were paired, printed on giant vinyl sheets, then sited across the Tampa landscape. An essential participant in this project was Wayne Mock, president of Eller Media, who donated time and space on the billboards that he owns. This sort of community involvement by someone not intimately connected with the art world was central to the success, both logistical and conceptual, of the project.

When Dill and Hine began talking, they were already thinking along similar lines. Hine wanted to bring a new kind of printed public art to the Tampa area, collaborative work between an artist and his shop. The project would be executed with esthetic and intellectual care, and the outsized prints would be unique, permanent objects. This singularity distinguishes them from many other artists’ billboard works, commercially manufactured in an open-ended edition and often destroyed after the installation.

A single screw of flesh

On the other hand, the Graphicstudio images would be transient, in the sense that they would not be permanently sited, and noncommercial, since they would not be for sale (although always available for exhibition). These objects would be set in nontraditional venues, ideally along roadways or other places of public traffic, so as to reach as large an audience as possible. Part of Hine’s thinking was shaped by recent controversies in the Tampa area over public-art projects. Those discussions centered mostly on the cost (in public funds) and location of permanent pieces of sculpture; very little was said about formal issues and content. Hine reasoned that if funding and permanence were not issues, then discussion could move on to the work itself. Hine further felt that if he could get members of the community involved–people like Wayne Mock–a sense of proprietorship might infuse the discussions.

The Tampa area, in addition to offering Dill the resources with which to realize her ideas, is also a quintessential late 20th-century American landscape, a variable zone crisscrossed by vast thoroughfares dedicated to commerce and the car, with little thought given to high art. As she worked within the general format of the mass-market roadside billboard, Dill deliberately sought to subvert many of its conventions and assumptions. Billboards typically combine minimal text and bold imagery to convey a direct message that may be instantly understood by passing motorists. Using this basic format for each composition, Dill combined her staged black-and-white images (here toned and given depth through a four-color printing process) with distinctive handwritten excerpts from poetry, passages not easily comprehended in a single drive-by reading. Ambiguity is used to elicit a double-take from drivers and ideally, multiple viewings, so that each billboard becomes part of the daily thinking of its passerby.

Since 1990, when a friend gave her a book of verse by Emily Dickinson, Dill has used the poet’s words in her work, juxtaposing them provocatively with her images. While recently she has turned to other poets, such as Rainer Maria Rilke, for the verbal components of her work, in Tampa she relied exclusively on Dickinson, whose strongly American sensibility and compressed phrasing lend themselves especially well to a project so committed to the quotidian encounter. Dickinson’s words function here as a lead-in to the billboards, an enticement for the viewer to mentally pause, enter and engage.

I think to live may be bliss

The pairing of the visual and the verbal is central to Dill’s work, but the images are not illustrations of the poetry, any more than the poetry is meant to serve as an explanation of the visual image. Rather, the two are meant to amplify and inflect each other, giving rise to multiple interpretations that make the works all the more mysterious. The artist incorporates the figure into her billboard pieces through photographs taken in her studio. Rather than use professional models, Dill chooses her subjects from her own circle of friends and acquaintances–people who have an aura of vulnerability and familiarity about them and who do not tend toward an impossible physical ideal. In this sense, they parallel the everyday context in which Dickinson’s poetry finds its expression; the unassuming subjects help keep the work accessible as it explores possibilities, lost chances and human relations in registers both sad and sweet. Moreover, all of these meditations are encapsulated in clear, simple compositions, which are nevertheless offbeat enough to make the viewer sit up and take notice.

Subtle and subversive, arresting and mobile, these billboards coax us into thinking about the human condition. By weaving her works into the everyday routine of viewers, Dill is quietly making art an integral part of a community’s life.

Joseph Ruzicka is a Brooklyn-based critic.
Published in Art in America, February 1999, Vol. 87, No. 2.

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