Hard Truths: The Art Of Thornton Dial At High Museum Of Art

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.

In addition to sculptures and paintings, Dial has created many lyrical drawings, often featuring fluid, contorted, Picasso-like figures, such as “African Athlete,” 1998. This tribute to Olympic track and field champion Florence Griffith-Joyner, in pencil, charcoal and pastel on paper, was created the year of her early death from epilepsy.

Among a dozen pieces Dial created following the 9/11 catastrophe, “Looking Out the Windows,” 2002, shows a scene of chaos and horror from atop the crumbling towers, as a jumble of dolls and teddy bears tumble to their deaths. Inclusion of such symbols of innocence suggests the naiveté of a country that believed itself immune to terrorist attacks.

Ten years after Morley Safer demeaned him and his principal patron on 60 Minutes, Dial portrayed himself as a lynching victim in “Strange Fruit: Channel 42,” 2003. The blood- and paint-spattered corpse hangs from an antenna labeled 42 — the number of the local station that aired the report — and is encircled by old spray-paint caps bearing the numbers of many other television channels that broadcast 60 Minutes.

Often labeled an “outsider” artist, Dial has taken on issues involving the nature and politics of “fine” art in works like “Setting the Table,” 2003, a parody of a William Merritt Chase still life he saw at the Birmingham Museum of Art. “In a satire of Chase’s precise realism,” says Cubbs, “Dial created a free-form expressionistic gathering of fruit that nevertheless mimics the sumptuousness of the original.” Collection of Culture and Beyond LLC/Collection of Barbara and James Sellman.

Recalling lynchings and acts of terror that characterized life for Southern blacks, in “Green Pastures: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How to Fly,” 2009, Dial used old paint rags to parody Jim Crow, the racist designation for African Americans. Its subtitle evokes memories of past suffering and hardship. High Museum of Art, gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from its William S. Arnett Collection.

Dial mixed wood, wire, twine, caning, cloth, wire screen, cow bone, enamel and Splash Zone compound on wood to compose his ode to the long-awaited arrival of electricity to the black rural South in “New Light,” 2004. The fencing symbolizes African Americans’ exclusion from progress, while modernity is signaled by white power lines.

Based on his own experiences, Dial has reflected on the harsh realities of sharecropping in works such as “Lost Cows,” 2000–2001, an eerie elegy to a fading agrarian world and made of real cow skeletons. Under the triangular rooflines of the slaughterhouse, a leather golf bag hanging at the center refers to the cow’s rebirth as a consumer product, and tiny mirrors in the eye sockets of one phantom cow capture reflections of viewers, suggesting the ultimate fate of us all.

Dial often conflates the struggle of blacks and females, as in works like “Trophies (Doll Factory),” 2000, a mordant commentary on female oppression and exploitation. Observes Cubbs, “Within the artist’s twisted fantasia, an assortment of lion and tiger figures stalk a garish chorus of half-dressed Barbie dolls whose plastic smiles belie their grim predicament. Little more than sexual prey, they are painted trophy-cup gold and silver, the glittering objects of pursuit and conquest.” Surrounding rug scraps and carpet rope reflect women’s menial work. Collection of Jane Fonda.

In line with the ingenious inspiration he finds in the symbolic energies of junk, in “Stars of Everything,” 2004, Dial depicted a bedraggled American eagle/buzzard — likely a surreal portrait of the artist himself — splayed on a colorful array of everyday detritus. Paint, spray paint and plastic cans, along with other detritus, suggest the materials in which he finds creative sustenance.

In immediate response to reporter Morley Safer’s denigrating treatment on 60 Minutes, in 1993, Dial created “Looking for the Good Price,” depicting a horrific slave auction, with a tortured black figure in the upper right being offered for sale by a grinning, demonic white auctioneer at left. Below, a mangled tiger (Dial) is entangled in a bicycle chain, reflecting his abuse on the television show.

The tattered and bloody American flag, featured in Dial’s “No Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together,” 2003, was created soon after the start of the Iraq War. It suggests that in spite of all their differences, Americans’ ideals will see them through adversities.

Among Dial’s musings on the spiritual, his 2003 work, “The Beginnings of Life in the Yellow Jungle,” overflows with vegetation and suggestions of evolving biological life. A doll figure, representing newborn life, appears toward the upper left, under a glove symbolizing the hand of divine creation. Cast in a bright, glowing yellow, Dial’s code for racial reconciliation, this eye-popping assemblage measures 75 by 112 by 13 inches. Collection of Nancy and Tim Grumbacher.

“The Art of Alabama,” 2004, a nearly 11-foot-tall assemblage of scrap materials, pays tribute to the uncelebrated expressionist practices of the black South, in which Dial’s own art is rooted. By having this towering stack rise high above a bright yellow concrete statue of the Greek mythological figure Pandora, the artist calls into question the superiority of the Western fine art tradition.

This 2002 photograph by David Raccuglia captures the intensity and humanity of self-taught artist Thornton Dial at age 74. Courtesy High Museum of Art. All images courtesy of Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

“The Art of Alabama,” 2004, a nearly 11-foot-tall assemblage of scrap materials, pays tribute to the uncelebrated expressionist practices of the black South, in which Dial’s own art is rooted. By having this towering stack rise high above a bright yellow concrete statue of the Greek mythological figure Pandora, the artist calls into question the superiority of the Western fine art tradition.

Early on, Dial expressed his theme of the unending struggle of African Americans through the iconic image of that wily trickster, the tiger, as in “All the Cats in Town,” 1993. Here, he outlined the resilient creature in carpet rope, symbolizing black subjugation.

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