As politically minded as he was self-reflective, Thornton Dial (1928-2016) was difficult to pin down. Since the early 90s, the artist has been featured in exhibitions at museum’s across the country, and over the years his work has been acquired by major institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum, the MoMA, the Philadelphia Museum, and the Hirshhorn in DC. Inspired by his upbringing in Jim Crow-era Alabama, much of Dial’s early work focuses on issues of race and class, and how the identity of the “outsider” played into national consciousness. The agonized expressions of the figures in Raggly Flag confront us with the contradictory message of unity the American Flag is meant to convey in a nation where many are still treated as second-class citizens. In his later work, Dial began exploring a more universal struggle, while never failing to address the nation with its own problematic history. As the first exhibition in New York since the artist’s passing earlier this year, We All Live Under the Same Old Flag at Marianne Boesky Gallery represents this change of perspective, along with Dial’s ability to capture a wider audience through his use of Americana style and appropriated consumer culture.
As a self-taught artist, Dial began his sculptural style of painting by compiling found objects and scrap materials from his job as a metalworker. He was able to transform old tires, chains, twigs, and rusted tools into highly textured and often expressionistic wall reliefs, paintings, and works on paper. His practice of weaving used fabrics together harkens back to the tradition of African American quiltmaking, seen in Negro History, a relatively recent work made from carpet, metal, putty, oil, enamel, and spray paint on wood.
Thornton believed in the individual interpretation of his work, but his titles are often times highly charged and specific to the black community and experience, which the gallery refers to as “a secret language of symbols that convey strength, survival, and freedom – important to the dialogue of the black experience.” The extent to which this language is “secret” can be left up to the viewer; nevertheless, Negro Story is an apt title for a work that takes something old and worn and uses it to create something beautiful.
As Dial shifted his focus to wider national histories of oppression and equality, his work became more simplified in form, material, and color. In the weeks following the attacks on September 11, 2001, the artist worked almost non-stop on large-scale paintings and sculptures in an attempt to capture a national ethos. The resulting works incorporate the expressive quality of his earlier works, but are more focused on scale and composition. Winter Jackets, a beautiful painting featuring a figure in the grasps of a ghostly form, represents this newfound sensibility.
Dial left behind a visually and historically rich body of work that tells anything but a singular perspective. “Art is a guide for every person that is looking for something,” Dial said in an interview with the New York Times. “That’s how I can describe myself: Mr. Dial is a man looking for something.”
Thornton Dial: We All Live Under the Same Old Flag closes Saturday, June 18, 2016.