4.8 / Review

From Atlanta: Hard Truths, the Art of Thorton Dial

By crystal am nelson January 29, 2013

The art of Thornton Dial is remarkable not only because it’s created in nearly total isolation but also because it stands as a viable response to those who continue to question original and innovative contributions by African American artists to the modernist tradition and the art world writ large. Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, further elucidates the core stakes of the issue of equitable representation in Western art history while securing Dial’s place within it. Organized by the Indiana Museum of Art’s adjunct curator of American art, Joanne Cubbs, Hard Truths is the largest exhibition of Dial’s oeuvre to date. Spanning twenty years of his career and installed across three floors, the selected work—including sculptures, three-dimensional paintings, and drawings—addresses a wide range of issues from social justice to mortality. Although not framed as such, the show is also a crucial intervention in the recent debate on race and assemblage art in the West, sparked in part by the New York Times art critic Ken Johnson’s review of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980.1 Counter to Johnson’s claims that African American artists appropriated assemblage from white artists, Hard Truths demonstrates that Dial’s assemblages are in fact an outgrowth of the African American sculptural tradition in which he grew up and not simply products of his “outsider” status.2

Born in 1928 in Emelle, Alabama, Dial started making assemblages in his early childhood, inspired by his cousin’s farm-based art practice, a common artistic pursuit among African Americans in the Deep South. During the Great Migration between 1915 and 1970, a contingent left the region for better opportunities in cities like Los Angeles; they brought with them numerous cultural traditions, including found-object sculpture.3 Dial neither left Alabama nor obtained a formal arts education; instead, he found among his neighbors a vibrant, highly skilled, self-taught assemblage-art community.4

The only sculpture in Hard Truths that explicitly refers to this significant and under-recognized artistic tradition is the towering The Art of Alabama (2004). Composed of clothing, scrap metal, wood, paper, and wire, the sculpture is painted a bright yellow that evokes Alabama’s native wildflowers. At its base, standing on a rough pedestal, is a small figure of the Greek mythological heroine Pandora. Though Pandora accidently released evil upon the world, she was the first woman perfectly sculpted from clay and considered the pinnacle of beauty. Through his placement of this statue, Dial acknowledges the minor role the Western standard of beauty has in his practice while poking fun at the reverence paid to that ideal.

Dial’s best pieces exemplify his singular and playful visual vocabulary, particularly in his use of stuffed animals and dolls as proxies for human subjects. At times, the choice of object results in clichéd execution, such as with Trophies (Doll Factory) (2000), a canvas heavily layered with Barbie dolls.


Thornton Dial. Heaven and Hell on Earth, 1995; corn husks, corncobs, dried mushrooms, roots, burned wood, clothing, bedding, toys, wire, metal, fabric, Christmas tree ornament, rope, carpet, paintbrush, other found materials, oil, enamel, spray paint, and industrial sealing compound on canvas on wood. Courtesy of the Artist and Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photo: crystal am nelson


Thornton Dial. Surviving the Frost, 2007; industrial plastic, straw, metal, fabric, wire, nails, and enamel on canvas on wood. Courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photo: crystal am nelson.

Yet most of the pieces suggest that Dial makes deeply personal and not easily interpreted associations with the found materials in his assemblages. High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man) (2002), depicts a colonial ship on stormy seas, with a filthy Mickey Mouse doll chained to the hull. The allusion to the transatlantic slave trade is clear, but by using Mickey Mouse in place of an African American figure, Dial exposes the absurd fiction that justified the New World slave trade. His satirical approach also can be seen in Lost Farm (Billy Goat Hill) (2000), in which a nude, grinning Ken doll, its arms and legs outstretched, sits amidst actual desiccated animal carcasses; this brutal tableaux can be read as an exhumation of the hidden history of the Ku Klux Klan’s and southern states’ landgrabs from African Americans.5

While racism and other social inequities are inescapable subjects for Dial, his work more broadly addresses duality—specifically, the tensions between town and country and life and death—as a fundamental aspect of both his life and American society. In the postapocalyptic canvases The New Birmingham and the Old Birmingham (1993) and Heaven and Hell on Earth (1995), Dial envisions urban sites as dark and dangerous for African Americans. Another section of the exhibition reveals Dial’s preoccupation with his own mortality, perhaps a given for an octogenarian who recently survived a severe stroke. However, all but one canvas, Surviving the Frost (2007), feel overworked and lack the clear vision displayed throughout the exhibition. 

Nonetheless, Hard Truths is one of the most powerful retrospectives of this genre of art, all the more so because it validates Dial’s place within a lineage of practitioners rather than labeling him as an outsider. Dial and his local contemporaries may not have art-school educations, but their lives as poor, working-class African Americans ultimately led them to found-object art. Had it not been for the proliferation of assemblage art in his rural community and the sheer joy and interest in craftsmanship suggested by its abundance, Thornton Dial may not have dedicated his life to it after forty years of working at a Pullman-Standard factory. Thus, when Johnson claims that assemblage is not the art of black struggle against centuries of oppression but that of “a people who already were about as free as anyone could be,” he is partially correct. But Johnson is wrong to assume that only white artists experienced the intellectual freedom that led to the development of assemblage art. As practiced by Dial and other African American artists, assemblage is the material expression of a complex sense of freedom despite social obstacles based on race and class and not solely the purchase of a privileged position from within an avant-garde.


Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial is on view at the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, until March 3, 2013.



1. Ken Johnson, "Forged from the Fires of 1960", The New York Times, October 25, 2012, accessed November 10, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/arts/design/now-dig-this-art-black-los-angeles-at-moma-ps1.html

2. For a summary of Johnson’s problematic claims, see this C-Monster blog entry: http://c-monster.net/blog1/2012/11/28/ken-johnson-kerfuffle/.

3. The Great Migration was the exodus of more than six million African Americans from the Deep South to northern and western cities, circa 1915 to 1970. For more information, see National Public Radio’s story: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129827444. For a more comprehensive resource, see Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage, 2011).

4. For more information on this tradition, see “The Road from Emelle” in William Arnett, Thornton Dial in the 21st Century (Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2005), an excerpt of which is available at: http://www.tinwoodmedia.com/PDFDownloads/TD21.intro.TEXT.pdf.

5. For more information on landgrabs from black farmers, see an excerpt from an Associated Press series: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines01/1202-03.htm.

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