Arts » Visual Arts

Thornton Dial: Beauty and mystery

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“They have everything we’re looking for in art,” says Joanne Cubbs, curator of Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, of the works in this 20-year retrospective by a remarkable American master opening Feb. 25 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

“They’re epic in their size, but also in what they offer,” Cubbs says of Dial’s vivid, large-scale paintings and assemblages. “This incredible, dark beauty. This incredible mystery. Both a physical engagement and an emotional and conceptual one.”

For Cubbs, this exhibition is the culmination of an engagement with Dial’s work that began in the early 1990s, when she was recruited by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, to create a new department dedicated to the work of folk, self-taught, or so-called “outsider” artists – the first program of its kind to be established in an American encyclopedic museum of art.

“I was very much interested in the kind of art that, for one reason or another, did not make its way into museums,” says Cubbs. “Thornton Dial, at that point, was a major figure in that field of work in the South.”

Indeed, Dial, who was born in rural Alabama in 1928 and spent a large portion of his life working as a welder, helping to make railroad cars for the Pullman Standard Company, had just had his first major exhibition in New York City, a dual show that took place simultaneously at the Museum of American Folk Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art.

The phenomenal nature of this two-headed exhibition, says Cubbs, “reflected an interesting conundrum in the work of Thornton Dial, which was, ‘What do we do with this individual? Where do we place his work?’ He’s always been too astounding to place easily in any category.”

The difficulty members of the fine arts establishment have had in categorizing Dial’s art reveals widely held preconceptions about what constitutes fine art, where it comes from and who is supposed to make it.

“If you look a little more closely at the nature of categories themselves, they become so highly problematized as to become useless in terms of illuminating any single artist’s work,” says Cubbs. “They have more to do with the fantasies of those who have the power to define what art is in our culture. In the case of Thornton Dial, I think it’s safe to say that any artist who produced a body of work of this scope and significance would have long ago become a major, recognized force within the art world.”

Cubbs maintains that the art establishment’s failure to accord Dial this kind of “living treasure” cultural status, to include his work in the canon of artists from his generation, tells us more about the politics of our art and cultural scene than it does about Dial’s art.

“He’s a black, elderly, working-class, unlettered man from the deep rural South,” says Cubbs. “And he has no desire to expatriate himself from his origins. They have provided him the substance, the point of view, the perspective from which he has offered us these incredible, probing comments on the nature of our world, our history and our humanity.”

As this exhibition’s title, Hard Truths, suggests, an important dimension of Dial’s work lies in his conscious engagement with the social and political culture in which he has lived. At first, this inhibited Dial from seeking a public audience.

“He was very concerned about the political nature of his work, that he might be offending the dominant white over-culture, but also fellow members of his community,” says Cubbs. “When he realized he would have access to a kind of audience that was actually interested in his work as an expression of this world-view of his, I think he became very excited. I don’t think he’s ever pursued recognition within the art world proper, but within the world at large, he had a dream about the possibility of having an audience for his ideas.”

In the exhibition, visitors will be able to follow Dial’s evolution through early, allegorical works aimed at joining in public discourse about race and class struggle to later pieces that grow increasingly complex and embedded with meanings open to multiple interpretations.

“You can see a development in his work as he’s trying to negotiate what his true potential is for reaching out to a wide public audience,” says Cubbs. “He starts to make art not so much for easy comprehension by the world, but expressing some of the deepest, most troubling visions of what our history and culture have been…They’re parables on the nature of humanity itself.”

In this, Dial has been compared with German artist Anselm Kiefer.

“He presents these complex, almost archaeological in their layering, texts so that people have a lot to look at, a lot to decipher and a lot to talk about,” says Cubbs.

The Dial exhibition consists of 70 pieces. In figuring out her strategy for presenting this great span, Cubbs says, “I wanted to create a kind of journey because the works themselves are so demanding and hard-hitting; I wanted to lead the visitor through a kind of tour of [Dial’s] world and his expressive concerns.”

Although she’s been in conversation with Dial for the better part of 15 years and had many opportunities to see his works of art, Cubbs says she continues to be “stunned by how physically arresting these pieces are to me.”

She encourages visitors to Hard Truths to “enter into the puzzles and the mysteries and the layered allegories of the works. Enjoy them. Discover the tiny surprises that exist in most of them. I still suddenly discover some incredible detail that gives me a new angle on what I’ve been thinking about the piece – or about the world.”

As to what Dial will make of this retrospective – which will also tour to art museums in Atlanta, New Orleans and Charlotte, Cubbs says, “This is what would please Thornton Dial the most: To know that others are rising to the occasion of his work.”

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