Thornton Dial Is Not An Outsider Artist

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I was really happy to hear that Studio 360 produced a piece about Bessemer artist Thornton Dial, whose exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Hard Truths, is on through September 18 of this year.

This is how the really wonderful site Art Babble describes Thornton and his work:
Drawing inspiration from the rich aesthetic traditions of the black South and with no formal education, Dial has forged a major body of astoundingly original work. Influenced by the found-object displays of African American yard shows, his work incorporates salvaged objects—from plastic grave flowers and children’s toys to carpet scraps and animal skeletons—to create highly charged assemblages that tackle a wide range of social and political subjects, with a particular focus on the struggles of historically marginalized groups such as women, the rural poor, and the impoverished underclass. Born out of decades of his own struggle as a working-class black man, Dial’s work also explores the long history of racial oppression in America and offers a moving testimony on the human struggle for freedom and equality.

There's an image gallery of the museum show here.

While I was expecting a lovely piece by Studio 360 to air, the content for what they titled 'Thornton Dial is not an Outsider Artist' was disappointing:

The interviewer spoke with Thornton's sons (the past year has been hard on him health-wise) which was fine, and she did a good job explaining the materials that are used, and how the larger pieces are immediately viewed.  She scratched the surface of if this is what's titled 'folk art'.

The interviewer spoke with James Nelson, the visual arts critic at the B'ham News.  He said:
"if we had promoted art like football, made it the thing to do, the thing to go to, the thing to argue about, the thing to drink beer with, it'd become important in people's lives.  At this point, a very small minority of Birmingham goes regularly to small galleries around town.  They just can't support all the artists that are working."

Now, James Nelson is accomplished and well regarded, for good reason.  But please, someone: name me a city in which the citizens support all the artists that are working, and where the galleries outdraw sports teams.  He probably gave a hundred better quotes than this, yet this is what ended up in the finished piece.

To top it off, the interviewer next goes to Bob Sykes BarB-Q in Bessemer to ask customers if they've ever heard of Thornton Dial.  Okay, you know the answer.  If you were in Sumter, South Carolina and you asked people at the local dairy bar who Jasper Johns is...  We could play this game all day, anywhere in the country.

I'm not going to take forever and dispel the notion that Thornton Dial is unknown here (although exhibit one would be APT's Mr. Dial Has Something to Say documentary which went on to win awards at film festivals and was even a SE Emmy Award winner).  It's fantastic that he's getting attention now more than ever, all over the country, but I wish the piece by Studio 360 hadn't been so shallow.

Good news: Thornton Dial's exhibit going on right now at the Andrew Edlin Gallery in NYC (coincidentally, Andrew also has works by Tuscaloosa's Frank Calloway, for whom he has put on two shows already).

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