(Note: It was a privilege to be able to see this retrospective of the terrific artist Thornton Dial in Indianapolis in 2011. He died this January, 2016. This is edited from the version that was in print -- I rewrote a paragraph musing about the differences between self-taught and trained artists.)
Big New Show
By Steven Rosen
While I’ve waxed positively about Cincinnati Art Museum’s recent exhibitions and programming, I’d be guilty of hometown parochialism if I failed to mention activities at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It seems on a fast track, under director Maxwell Anderson, to becoming a museum of consistent national significance – with its Design Arts shows, its innovative 100 Acres: Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park (which I wrote about in this column last year), and its soon-to-open Miller House in Columbus, Ind.
Meanwhile, IMA has recently opened an ambitious and challenging retrospective of the southern African-American “outsider” (or self-taught) artist Thornton Dial, Hard Truths. It’s on display through Sept. 18, and is definitely worth a trip.
Dial, now in his 80s, was a welder on Pullman railroad cars in his native Alabama. He also had a gift for reusing the often-cast-off material, industrial and domestic, of everyday life. The results are sculpture, paintings and assemblages that – filled with fiery, rugged, impolite symbolism – address racial, political, economic and environmental injustices, disparities and ironies.
It can be tough stuff with a dark palette, literally and emotionally, but he developed a following in the 1990s and today is our greatest living self-taught artist. With over 70 major pieces, this is the biggest Dial show ever mounted.
Dial’s assemblages/sculpture test the value of imposed separations between self-taught and trained artists.
You can’t look at his pieces without thinking of Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines,” Ed Kienholz’s room-sized assemblages, or Robert Colescott’s wild, disorderly paintings about race relations. I think of Kienholz especially, since his work was fueled with criticism of the American way of life.
If there’s one piece de resistance in the Dial show (and there are several candidates), it would be the 2005 floor sculpture “Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City.” Is there a work of art that better expresses our housing meltdown – and the lies about the attainability of the American Dream? Dial uses a doormat, cardboard, wood doors, steel, tin, a bed frame, wire fencing, cloth, wood, a towel, enamel, spray paint – I think there’s a tree trunk in there, too.
One side is a fairly benign vision – with Dial’s artistic eccentricities intact – of the façade of a house. But the door is painted green like money, and looks a little punched-in. And there’s a blood-like red stain oozing out from the bottom. Greed and violence dominate below the surface.
But then you walk around to the other side, and all hell has broken loose. The unpainted wood is splintered. Barbed wire covers the facade, and a demonic, abstracted “woodpecker” is ready to break through that front door to get out and cause havoc.
Some of the pieces feel a little forced, shaped too determinedly to conform to the big message in their titles, like “Victory in Iraq.” And one piece, using dolls to symbolize “innocent” victims trapped inside the World Trade Center, is a bad idea.
When Dial is just out to have fun, the results can be great. One example is the wall piece “Setting the Table,” which Dial was inspired to create after seeing William Merritt Chase’s “Still Life With Watermelon” at Birmingham’s art museum. He’s impishly riffing on the conservative values of “”proper fine art, while at the same time striving to top its visual appeal with lots of lively color and forms. He uses gloves, bedding, a beaded car-seat cover, cooking utensils, artificial flowers…mismatched shoes. You could stock a Dollar Store with the contents.
That, I think, constitutes Great American Art.
(For more information, visit www.imamuseum.org.)