Brooklyn Rail: Thornton Dial: Handwriting on the Wall

June 7, 2023

Jane McFadden

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The first major show for Thornton Dial in Los Angeles, Handwriting on the Wall, represents an ongoing curatorial choice by Blum & Poe to address what might have once been called “outsider” art of the deep South. The show is joined by another, curated by friend of Dial and fellow Southerner, Lonnie Holley—who had a solo show at the gallery in 2022—running simultaneously at the space. The art historian’s instinct might be to put this work in its place by drawing comparisons and making connections between Dial, a self-taught Black man of the Jim Crow South, and more established figures such as Robert Rauschenberg, or to link him, via some sense of race and method (assemblage), to the better known practices of Noah Purifoy or Betye Saar. But for this viewer, a child of a later and more privileged South, the pleasure was to once again encounter “yard work” as it might be called and ponder its arrival here in a prestigious gallery in Los Angeles, even as it remained in this instance more contained than the work found in visits to such sites of my youth. 

The question of place was Dial’s, as well, and numerous compositions in the show play with the concern of where exactly one is: one assemblage, Outside the Wall (2012) evokes a vine-covered brick wall. Its obstruction and engagement of our vision brings to mind Gordon Parks’s famous photograph published in Life magazine in 1956, Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama which shows six young black children viewing a fair through a chain link fence. The Freedom Side, another work from 2012, with its ground covered in denim and overpainted in blue, seems to emphasize the open sky. Handwriting on the Wall (2015), after which the show is titled, shows four rectilinear forms against a gray ground—posters against a wall perhaps—with lines of text signified by barbed wire affixed to the surface. Referencing manual labor, Southern pastures, and prison, not to mention the resonances of the many forms of torture at the hand of a mob, these wires indicate that history remained resonant for Dial even as he neared the end of his life. Dial was attuned to historical concerns not only in his reading of the South, but also in wide-ranging contemporary events, including 9/11 and the war in Iraq. 

As a daughter of a contemporary of Dial, this viewer immediately recognized the vernacular echoes throughout the show: pigs, chickens, and of course, mules, and catfish, too; the mud and muck, the use and reuse of materials, the fertile reality of that thick air, and the brutal nature of the work. Pig’s Life from 2000 includes literal pigs’ blood and pig bristles in a muddy assemblage. Such rural difficulty would have been later matched by distinct challenges found working under the polluted skies of Birmingham, Alabama, industry. But Dial’s work does not allow us to fetishize this reality as much as find it in the material before us. Many of his surfaces are worked and reworked, evoking the brut planes of Jean Dubuffet; in one interview, Dial speaks of hitting, scraping, even burning the surfaces of his work. Looking at Old Voices (2014), a monochromatic abstracted surface in dark grays and browns, one begins to see a cabin emerge, a line here, a piece of tin there. It adeptly alludes to interior and exterior, frontal and plan views, never settling, never naming the echoes found there. 

Two whitewashed assemblages form an important anchor to the show. The first, again referencing place, puts us in town (Intown Neighborhood [2013]). A second, titled Ownership (2013), reminds us that it is not only where we are, but also who holds the power there, circling back around to the question of the gallery itself. Whitewashing in the rural South was a method to cover the embarrassment of bare floors, and we might imagine that Dial evokes this relationship to material as well as social histories here. With these two white paintings, Dial also enters into a well-established canon—from Kazimir Malevich to Robert Ryman—and his complex surfaces deserve their place there. Dial, as his son Richard recounts, had never seen art when he was growing up, and didn’t really know he was making it until Holley brought the visionary collector and curator William Arnett around in 1987. How one even conceives of creativity behind the wall is another question of the show. Dial recounts making things for the cemetery, making fishing lures, making engineering solutions for the Pullman factory, solving problems. His work was constant and improvisational before Arnett arrived and would remain so. It is crucial to note the virtuosity with which Dial walks the line between communicating his experience and abstracting it. It may have been a necessary form of code switching, but it is also agile as art. 

A series of drawings by Dial focus on the figure, blurred and abstracted, and these images read almost as spirit drawings, maybe ghosts, always shifting. In Under Construction (2006), two pink-fleshed women (and it should be noted that several of these seven drawings include pink rather than brown skin tones) hold up a rectilinear form with a scratched and abstract surface—maybe a painting—and I cannot help but wonder if he saw the future art world reception there. Women play a role throughout Dial’s work, having provided the grounding of his youth, but he must have also known the danger of some white women around him. Black women in his early paintings in the show, Untitled (1990) or Watch the Cat Go Free (1990), have birds on their heads/hats/headdresses in vibrant color and bold abstract strokes. The bird served as another ongoing trope for Dial, for flying over, surviving. Oft cited, and for reason, for Dial knew: “My art is the evidence of my freedom.” 

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