Arts » Visual Arts

Review: Thornton Dial at the IMA



5 stars

Indianapolis Museum of Art; through Sept. 18.

This maximal show, consisting of 70 works created over a period of 20 years, gives real meaning to the term “body of work.” Dial is an artist who seems compelled to see just how much meaning a work of art can hold, to make art so fully of its time and place that traditional two-dimensional boundaries aren’t enough.

Thus a piece from 1992, “The Last Day of Martin Luther King,” includes wood, carpet, wire screen, metal pans, broken glass, mop cords, cloth, string and enamel. This insistence on inclusion – the need to get everything in and, even more, to get it right — invests virtually all the pieces on view with an electrifying physicality.

Each of the seven galleries in this exhibition opens like an embrace. Dial, who was born in Alabama in 1928, and spent most of his life working as a welder for the Pullman Standard railroad car company, has a bone-deep gift for metaphor.

Throughout this show, brilliantly orchestrated into a series of interlocking themes reflecting Dial’s rural past, the plight of the city, troubled times in the larger world, as well as Dial’s creative spirit and spirituality, by curator Joanne Cubbs, we find an artist who is not only profoundly reflective, but whose experience of the world continually causes him to seek larger contexts, a meaning beyond himself, and a connection to community that is simultaneously grounded in political awareness and cosmic appreciation.

A wry, sideways humor also infuses this work, as in “Driving To the End of the World,” a five-piece sequence assembled from rusted auto parts, or “Shade Tree Comfort,” an assemblage of scrap metal, barbed wire and tree branches that achieves a brutal honesty. A gallery devoted solely to Dial’s drawing, an array of primarily female figures with gravity-defying heads and sinuous, dancing bodies, is an added, joyful revelation.

This show, which will tour to other cities following its closure here on Sept. 18, is another in a lengthening string of hits by the IMA. It’s cause for celebration.

See the slideshow below for photos of Dial's work:


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