Thornton Dial’s Work at the High

This past Sunday, I experienced “Hard Truths,” an exhibition of recent works by Thornton Dial at the High Museum of Art. The real reason I had rushed down to the museum was to catch the last day of the “Fast Forward” exhibition, and I had no expectations when I strolled casually into the Dial show afterward. The only thing I knew about Dial was that he was a self-taught, older, African-American artist from the South. I could have guessed that his work would deal with hardships, but I was unprepared for the magnitude of what I was about to see.
Dial’s work is a series of enormous assemblages containing anything and everything he has at his disposal: building materials, barbed wire, paint and paint cans, clothing, toys, and automotive parts. From these cast-off materials, he creates human figures within various kinds of urban battlegrounds, from Alabama to Afghanistan. He depicts his anger and sadness about issues such as war, terrorism, poverty, and racism. One of the most evocative pieces is about September 11, 2001. In it, Dial built a large structure with dolls and stuffed animals seemingly “falling” from it. These are reminiscent of the 9/11 victims who jumped (or fell) from the burning World Trade Center towers to their deaths. Dial said that using children’s toys to represent the victims symbolizes the innocent lives that were lost, as well as the fragility of life in general. Other works in the show depicted battle-weary soldiers, blood-soaked American flags, lynchings and other racially-motivated violence, and homelessness.
I was amazed by these works on a number of levels, not the least of which was their daunting size and the technical difficulty of constructing believable figures and backgrounds out of materials that were not originally intended to be sculptural mediums. One piece had a cloudy evening sky that was soft and ethereal, despite the materials. And the grief and frustration that Dial seeks to convey is absolutely palpable. Standing in front of the 9/11 piece took me right back to the horrifying video footage we’ve all seen on TV. The “bloody” rags that made up the American flag piece put the sacrifices made by our troops literally in my face. There is a large number of works in this show – so many that the show had to be mounted in several different spaces in the High. Each time I turned a corner to enter a different room, I was met by more of Dial’s poignant reflections on various social crises. Dial is a prolific and seemingly indomitable artist who inspires me to consider how I can better convey meaning in my own work.
Go and see this exhibition!

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