Recently I had the pleasure of viewing two exhibitions of the African-American artist, Thornton Dial.
Dial, a self-taught artist, grew up in rural Alabama. He worked on farms in his youth, and as a factory worker for much of his adult life. But he was influenced by family and neighbors, some of whom found time to express in creative ways what it is to be human.
Dial is now in his eighties, and it’s extraordinary that this man found the time – and also the inspiration – to create large-scale assemblages, sculptures, paintings, and drawings, over a period of decades.
As we entered The Mint Museum in Charlotte, and went up to the floor where the Dial exhibition was being shown, I did not know what to expect. Just a couple of weeks earlier we had seen an exhibition of his drawings in the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill. Those drawings, simultaneously whimsical and serious, conjured up meanings of folklore, religion, and personal metaphor, but gave me no thought to what I was about to see. I continued reading the introduction as my wife walked around the corner. In a couple of minutes she came back.
“You’re not going to believe what you’re about to see,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
I followed her. In the middle of the next room was a huge sculpture, and on the walls giant-sized paintings/assemblages. Right away these works of art hit you. The scale of them is mindboggling. These wall assemblages, I could see, were hanging in several rooms. I think I sucked in my breath at first sight. My eyes widened.
Upon closer look, the assemblages didn’t disappoint.
In truth, I have never seen anything like them. In size, the assemblages were perhaps eight by ten feet in diameter. These were not small-scale Romare Bearden collages. In sheer size, they were enormous, and they engulfed their space – and threatened to dwarf it – by the enormity of the protrusions, and the imagination of their creator. Yet, as I walked through the exhibition, it wasn’t the dinosaur-sized construction that ultimately impressed me; it was the emotion that the assemblages conveyed and caused.
On wooden board Thornton Dial had attached all sorts of objects, mostly found, and, with the use of paint, created what I would term painting assemblages. No object appeared to be off limits to his imagination. He wasn’t immune to using toys, dead animals, yard waste and all sorts of detritus – anything to create either a time capsule of a place or a period of American life now gone (such as the small rural farmer), or, more seriously, a dark time in American history, slavery, thereby questioning American civilization’s own foundation.
Most movingly, however, as we moved in front of each piece, was the idea of the man creating, in total obscurity, these monumental pieces, until the accumulation itself confounds. Thornton Dial did not study art. As far as one knows, he didn’t know of Picasso, or Matisse, or Willem de Kooning, or any other artist, and certainly nothing of art movements, and all the isms that go with it. For Dial, he simply worked by intuition, and eschewed anything to do with self-analysis, which is not to say that he didn’t reflect on what he was creating. He simply took from his surrounding life, and translated those passions into material.
Thornton Dial wasn’t without his doubts. He even took to burying his work in the yard so that he wouldn’t have to show it to his family, who could be critical at times. But throughout his life he continued to make art, as he still does.
As we left the museum, my wife and I felt an overwhelming sense of having seen something profound. To say Thornton Dial’s paintings/assemblages moved us would be an understatement; his work wasn’t full of restraint, at times it hit you hard, and you had to stare at a piece for several minutes to fully realize its affect.
Art is often caught up in the role of human beings and our evaluation of ourselves in the world. Thornton Dial’s world is sad, humorous, and unromantic, but above all, loving. He knows and is able to express the human condition, and though he finds, at times, sadness and pain, his world isn’t Beckettian; nothing is more real than the life we lead, and how we live it.