ATLANTA, GA. — One of America’s most remarkable contemporary artists, Thornton Dial (b 1928) is a self-taught African American who has drawn inspiration from the rich aesthetic traditions of the black South, forging a major body of astonishingly original art. Incorporating salvaged objects into his work — from children’s toys to Barbie dolls, plastic grave flowers to carpet scraps, animal skeletons and pieces of metal — he creates large, symbolically charged assemblages conveying turbulent, animated thoughts about history and issues of our times.
Born into poverty in rural Alabama, Dial has lived his entire life in the deep South. His art, informed by decades of struggle as a working-class black man, offers compelling commentary on America’s most pervasive social and political challenges. His epic works include haunting reflections on discrimination, global conflicts, the tragedy of 9/11 and African American life. Moving and insightful, Dial’s oeuvre forms a powerful anthology of the human quest for freedom and equality and offers a vision of the world that invites viewers to examine the hard truths of contemporary reality.
These issues are explored and documented in a splendid exhibition, “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial,” organized by and already seen at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, as well as the New Orleans Museum of Art and Mint Museum, and on view at the High Museum of Art through March 3. Curated by the Indianapolis Museum’s adjunct curator of American art Joanne Cubbs, the show comprises 59 large-scale paintings, drawings and found-object sculptures and is accompanied by a noteworthy catalog.
“Thornton Dial’s works are more than just visually compelling,” says High Museum director Michael E. Shapiro, “they also provide powerful political and social commentary on some of the most important issues of our time.” Adds the High’s curator of folk art Susan Crawley, Dial’s “unique blend of aesthetics, history and social activism make him one of the most thought-provoking artists of our day.”
Born to a young, single mother in rural Alabama, Dial grew up doing manual work and spent 30 years as a welder for railway car maker Pullman Standard Company in Bessemer. Working with his hands from an early age to make “things,” he also picked up painting, drawing and sculpture, strongly influenced by found-object displays in African American yard shows. Utilizing all manner of found objects, he in effect intuitively worked with post-Modernist artmaking materials. Regarding his objects as private creative expressions, Dial for years buried them in his yard.
Meanwhile, Dial and his wife raised five children, two of whom are also artists. He continues to live and work in Bessemer. Although slowed by ill-health in recent years, the thin, frail and reticent artist is still creating art in a large building behind Dial Metal Patterns, a fabrication shop run by his children.
Things changed dramatically for Dial in the late 1980s when he was discovered by a wealthy Atlanta collector, William Arnett, who recognized his unheralded African American talent and has actively promoted his work ever since. “Dial possessed a combination of pride, dignity and determination along with a wry sense of humor,” Arnett recalls. “His earliest artworks demonstrated an unlimited creative imagination. All he lacked was encouragement and opportunity.”
Buoyed by a monthly stipend from Arnett — in exchange for the collector’s right of first refusal — Dial began making art full time, and showed his work publicly in museums and galleries, attracting favorable attention.
In the early 1990s, however, a devastating 60 Minutes segment by Morley Safer suggesting that Dial was an illiterate naïf who was being exploited by Arnett put a damper on displays of Dial’s work. A decade later, the artist recalled that traumatic setback in a self-portrait, lynching assemblage, “Strange Fruit: Channel 42,” in which an eyeless, bloodstained figure hangs like a scarecrow from a television antenna. Arnett and Dial remain close to this day.
In the wake of the 60 Minutes fiasco, bolstered by growing interest in African-American self-taught art, Dial’s work became more complex and powerful. He has regained national recognition and increasing respect. His work universally draws critical praise; the current display is one of several major solo museum exhibitions in recent years.
A product of the last generation of African American artists raised in a racially segregated society, Dial is above all a master artist-storyteller with a unique ability to convey messages by melding together scavenged materials. “Like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg before him,” observes art historian Jane Livingston, Dial “has absorbed the vernacular of the rural South and transformed it: in Dial’s case, into stories of profound power and an uneasy beauty.” Preeminent African American art historian David Drisekll says that “Dial may have accomplished an even greater level of originality [than Rauschenberg] because he has not had to re-examine the logic of making things according to the ‘rules’ of an established fine-art canon.”
Dial tends to work in cycles on subjects that he explores intensively for a time and then revisits years later. Regardless of subject matter, his art never strays far from his own experiences and sensibilities. “Social, political and existential truth-seeking…has always been the central concern” of Dial’s work, observes Indianapolis Museum director Maxwell L. Anderson.
Joyous, angry, funny and profound, Dial’s art has focused on the African American experience, as well as the struggles of historically marginalized groups, such as women, the rural poor and the impoverished underclass. In exploring America’s long history of racial oppression, Dial offers moving testimony about the human struggle for freedom and equality.
From the start, Dial’s interest in the African American experience manifested itself through images of a wily tiger, symbolizing black people’s struggles and triumphs, as in “All the Cats in Town.” In “The Last Day of Martin Luther King,” the tiger assumes the identity of the civil rights titan on the day of his assassination.
Delving further back in history, Dial has repeatedly invoked the specter of slavery in huge works like “High and Wide (Carrying Rats to the Man),” in which a grinning Mickey Mouse figure is chained to the hull of a slave ship. It suggests the accuracy of the artist’s observation that “You probably see many things in my art if you’re looking at it right.”
Broadening his scope, in “Trophies (Doll Factory),” replete with Barbie dolls being stalked by wild animals, Dial drew analogies between the oppression of African Americans and universal exploitation of women, in a work measuring 75 by 123 by 8 inches.
Dial often draws on the hardships and poverty he experienced and witnessed growing up the rural South, using a subdued palette and tattered and decaying materials to evoke an unhappy legacy of deprivation and racist oppression. Specific works recall cotton picking; the drudgery of rural life; the plight of black sharecroppers and lynchings. Real cow skeletons make “Lost Cows” a compelling elegy to a fading agrarian world, while in “New Light” tangles of brush, crumpled fences and wires herald the long-awaited arrival of electricity in the remote black South.
Dial also dealt with the new dilemmas confronting rural blacks who abandoned their agrarian roots to migrate to cities like Birmingham in search of greater opportunities. Homelessness, urban segregation, grimy factory work, exploitation of coal miners and degradation of the environment by urban development are among the themes powerfully explored in a series of 1990s assemblages.
As a self-taught artist outside the art establishment mainstream, Dial has created works that honor the expressive traditions of the black South and has parodied “high” art masterpieces. With “In Honor,” he pieced together clothing, bedding, carpet, plastic twine, enamel and spray paint on canvas on wood. Measuring an imposing 73 by 108 by 3 inches, it is a colorful, jumbled homage to the talented, improvisational quilters of Gee’s Bend, Ala. “Art of Alabama,” a towering assemblage of scrap materials, represents African American yard shows, fronted by a classical female sculpture symbolizing the contrasting manner of Western fine art. “Setting the Table,” a vivid bird’s-eye view of a groaning board, is a playful takeoff on a William Merritt Chase painting, perhaps questioning its elite niche in art history.
A devoted follower of cable television news (an expressive drawing is titled “9/11: Interrupting the Morning News”), Dial in recent years has commented on such traumatic and tragic current events as recurring wildfires in California, the devastating effects of modern warfare in Iraq and the global oil crisis. Following the 9/11 tragedy, he created more than a dozen pieces reflecting the catastrophe, including a chilling view out a window from atop the crumbling towers and a depiction of carnage on the ground below. On a positive note, “Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together,” suggests that the torn American flag — and Americans — will persevere and overcome the world’s violence and disorder.
From time to time, Dial has delved deeply into ethereal realm, exploring the mysteries of the universe, transitions between life and death and the promise of spiritual redemption. Several works examine the resurrection of life, in the form of emerging butterflies, roses blooming in the snow or, in “The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Light,” the first stirrings of the biological world. In other pieces Dial has employed religious iconography to grapple with issues of social justice and the potential for transcending life’s hardships.
This stimulating, thought-provoking, aesthetically challenging display should remove Dial from the marginalized pigeonhole of a self-taught, “outsider” artist and position him as a significant player in the contemporary mainstream art world. The look, ambition and intellectual reach of his work showcase his singular genius, driving home his messages of challenge, triumph and hope. As Dial once said, “All truth is hard truth. We’re in the darkness now, and we got to accept the hard truth to bring on the light. You can hide the truth but you can’t get rid of it. When truth come[s] out in the light, we get the beauty of the world.” Dial, concludes Driskell, is “a giant among us, a talent that seems unlimited…”
The appropriately large-scale, 216-page catalog is crammed with compelling closeups of many of Dial’s works, explicated by insightful essays by Cubbs, Driskell and cultural critic Greg Tate. Published by Indianapolis Museum of Art and DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel Publishing, it sells for $45, hardcover.
The High Museum is at 1280 Peachtree Street, NE. For information, www.high.org or 404-733-4444.