Sunday, November 4, 2012

Self-Taught Southern Artist - TIME on the Images of Thornton Dial


These images of Thornton Dial and his work appeared as a photo essay accompanying the article Outside the Lines, TIME Magazine, published March 14, 2011, written by Richard Lacayo and photographed by Mark Mahaney.

"Born in 1928 in rural Alabama, Thornton Dial began making "things" (as he called them) as a younger man. "I started picking up stuff," he says. "Beer cans, plastic bottles. I was making stuff to sell." He made a lot of it, until it filled up the house he shared with his wife Clara Mae Murrow and their five children. "My wife told me, If you don't get this junk out of the house, I'm going to leave you," he says.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) Stars of Everything 2004

"With virtually no education (Dial cannot read or write), he crafted materials largely for his own pleasure until the 1980s, when he found himself out of a job. Another self-taught artist introduced him to Will Arnett, an Atlanta-based collector who holds a passion for "vernacular" southern black artists. Arnett helped Dial think of himself as an artist and placed his work in collections and on public view.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) All the Cats in Town 1993

"The tiger is an image Dial uses often to symbolize the survival strategies that African Americans must master to get by in life, though here the multicolored cats may be meant to stand in for people of many different races and backgrounds.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) The Last Day of Martin Luther King 1992

"Dial uses the black-and-white-striped tiger here to represent King on the day of his assassination. But this time, the tiger is made of painted mop strings, a symbol of both the menial labor that African Americans were so often confined to and King's mission to "cleanse" the historical sin of racism. In the upper left corner, Christ comforts King's widow. Dial further connects King's death to Christ's by the painted frying pans in the lower left corner that imply a Last Supper.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) Eye of the Fabric 2007

"In this tribute to Southern-women quilters, which might have involved a very sentimental treatment, Dial opts instead for near abstraction. He suggests the women through a webwork of braided cloth, a kind of sewing circle that also represents bonds of community (and women's braided hair). But he paints it all over in a leaden gray to suggest how that way of life has already receded into the dusty sediment of the past.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle 2003

"Perhaps because Dial operates free of the standard postures of contemporary art — irony being the most obvious — what he can do is reach, when he wants and without apology or ironic distance, for euphoria. It is hard to imagine another contemporary artist attempting, much less getting away with, the sincere effulgence of The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle, this lush take on the first stirrings of the world.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) The Art of Alabama 2004

"In many parts of the rural South, it's still possible to see "yardshows" on the property of modest homes — decorative assemblages of found materials put together in imaginative ways. Here Dial, whose work found inspiration in folk-art assemblages, pairs one of his own making with a painted concrete garden statue of the mythical Greek figure Pandora to create a face-off between conventional ideas about "high" and "low" art.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) Don't Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together 2003

"In a work that Dial created just after the start of the Iraq war, the flag becomes a tangled battlefield. Embedded within its folds is the remnant of a can of motor oil, a reminder of the resource always at the heart of American policy choices in the Middle East.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) Seasoned 2004

"Dial takes on Abstract Expressionism. After seeing a exhibition of work by the abstract painter Joan Mitchell, he produced this work in reply. Strips of painted metal stand in for the famously flamboyant AbEx brushstroke. By suggesting a field of flames, the work also connects to the idea of life's trials and the "seasoning" they produce.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) Out of Control 2003

"Another work made around the start of the war in Iraq, this assemblage of wood, tin, soil and other materials was inspired by reports of wildfires in California but at the same time refers to global chaos of all kinds.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) Setting the Table 2003

"This is Dial's rethinking of a 19th century painting by William Merritt Chase, Still Life with Watermelon. Whereas Chase deployed an almost photographic realism, Dial goes for a gleeful Expressionist reimagining of the arranged foods, with a grape cluster made from a beaded car seat and a real frying pan holding painted eggs. Look closely and you can make out Dial himself in the upper right-hand corner, slanting leftward while he runs across the canvas banging a pan, a rural Southern tradition for calling everyone to the table.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man) 2002

"Dial even manages to inject new life into one of the most cliched images of postwar America. In this complex assemblange, a stuffed Mickey Mouse 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.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) Surviving the Frost 2007

"As a tribute to his late wife Clara, Dial made this painted assemblage of roses surviving on a cold, gray rock, a symbol of the nurturing persistence of women in an inhospitable world.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) African Athlete 1998

"The he is best known for his assemblanges, Dial also works on paper, making drawings and watercolors with gleeful, springing lines.


Thornton Dial (American artist, 1928-) Lost Cows 2000-2001

"The bones here are the skeletons of a small herd of cows that died soon after Dial bought them. "Lost cows" refers to Dial's lost investment and also to the vanished world of the rural South. Tucked among the skeletons is a leather golf bag, a wry notion of the cows' "rebirth" in another form."

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