Outside the Lines

In a potent retrospective, self-taught artist Thornton Dial gets his due

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Photograph by Mark Mahaney for TIME

Dial, at home near Bessemer, Ala. "Art," he once said, "is strange-looking stuff."

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Though he makes work on paper — drawings and watercolors with a gleeful, springing line, like African Athlete — Dial's main medium is assemblage, mostly three-dimensional wall pieces made by gluing or welding found materials and painting over and under them. What that means is that he arrived on his own at a practice that, in terms of conventional art history, had its origins a century ago in the welded sculptures of Picasso and Georges Braque and the collages of Kurt Schwitters, then came back strongly after World War II, when Joseph Cornell, David Smith, Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson and Cy Twombly all took it up. No one went at assemblage with more devilish abandon than Robert Rauschenberg, Dial's near contemporary, whose combines of the 1950s and '60s could make a persuasive ménage à trois out of a stuffed goat, a rubber tire and a tennis ball.

When Dial came to assemblage, he was unaware of any of this history. He had never set foot in a museum. What he had by way of guidance were the traditions of African-American folk art all around him, in which combining scrap-heap materials was standard practice long before Picasso ever picked up a blowtorch. In the show's catalog, Joanne Cubbs, the curator who organized "Hard Truths," reminds us that just like Dial, Rauschenberg, who grew up in the largely black town of Port Arthur, Texas, was influenced by the "yardshow" assemblages he saw as a boy. The memory banks of small-town African America, yardshows were pieced together from things discarded without losing their residue of personal history, the kind from which the larger varieties of history are built.

History is very much the point here. Dial spent most of his life in an Alabama that was brutally segregated, a battleground of the civil rights movement where the Klan was a force to be reckoned with and Governor George Wallace was the hero of diehards everywhere. Dial's work is a memory bank too, an attempt to come to grips with the struggles of black people over the years and the predicaments and ragged glories of American life generally.

With that as his goal, Dial wants his art to be legible without being obvious. So he operates by developing images with dense but graspable layers of reference. In some works, he lets tigers symbolize the strategies black men and women use to get by. But those coiled, slinky cats may turn out to be made from carpet remnants — a reminder that for all their wiles, these beasts get stepped on. In The Last Day of Martin Luther King, from 1992, the tiger appears again, as a stand-in for King, but now it's made from painted-over mop strings, so it simultaneously refers to the cleanup work to which so many African Americans were restricted and to King's great historical task of cleansing the stain of racism from American life.

When Dial is at his best, he even manages to inject new life into one of the most clichéd images of postwar art. Mickey Mouse, who usually gets dragged into service as a symbol of the trivial strain in American culture, does much more complicated double duty in High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man). A stuffed Mickey doll, the white portions of its face smeared in black, hangs in chains in the midst of a wire-and-rod construction meant to signify a slave ship with goat-hide sails. With one compact gesture, Dial invokes the atrocity of the Atlantic slave trade and the minstrel-show culture the descendants of those slaves adopted to entertain and outwit their oppressors. It would all be funny if the laughs didn't come so hard.

In a piece like that, Dial claims a place within the line of history painters stretching back to the 18th and 19th centuries. He doesn't try to call on their visual high rhetoric — who would anymore? — but at the same time, there's very little in his work you could call folkloric. There's no easy charm, no appeal to whatever is left of our collective fantasy about country innocence. But maybe because he operates free of the standard postures of contemporary art — irony being the most obvious — what he can do is reach, when he wants to and without apology or ironic distance, for euphoria. It's hard to imagine another contemporary artist attempting, much less getting away with, the sincere effulgence of The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle, Dial's lush take on the first stirrings of the world.

Rauschenberg once said, "Art doesn't come out of art." What he meant, and Dial would surely agree, is that it comes out of life. If anything, art is a word so contaminated these days by hype, misunderstanding and sales talk, it's tempting sometimes to think we should try doing without it. Until you remember that it's the one word spacious enough to contain what Dial does.

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