“They have everything we’re

looking for in art,” says Joanne Cubbs, curator of Hard

Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, of the works in this 20-year

retrospective by a remarkable American master opening Feb. 25 at the

Indianapolis Museum of Art.

“They’re epic in their

size, but also in what they offer,” Cubbs says of Dial’s

vivid, large-scale paintings and assemblages. “This incredible,

dark beauty. This incredible mystery. Both a physical engagement and

an emotional and conceptual one.”

For Cubbs, this exhibition is the

culmination of an engagement with Dial’s work that began in the

early 1990s, when she was recruited by the High Museum of Art in

Atlanta, Georgia, to create a new department dedicated to the work of

folk, self-taught, or so-called “outsider” artists –

the first program of its kind to be established in an American

encyclopedic museum of art.

“I was very much interested in

the kind of art that, for one reason or another, did not make its way

into museums,” says Cubbs. “Thornton Dial, at that point,

was a major figure in that field of work in the South.”

Indeed, Dial, who was born in rural

Alabama in 1928 and spent a large portion of his life working as a

welder, helping to make railroad cars for the Pullman Standard

Company, had just had his first major exhibition in New York City, a

dual show that took place simultaneously at the Museum of American

Folk Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art.

The phenomenal nature of this

two-headed exhibition, says Cubbs, “reflected an interesting

conundrum in the work of Thornton Dial, which was, ‘What do we

do with this individual? Where do we place his work?’ He’s

always been too astounding to place easily in any category.”

The difficulty members of the fine arts

establishment have had in categorizing Dial’s art reveals

widely held preconceptions about what constitutes fine art, where it

comes from and who is supposed to make it.

“If you look a little more

closely at the nature of categories themselves, they become so highly

problematized as to become useless in terms of illuminating any

single artist’s work,” says Cubbs. “They have more

to do with the fantasies of those who have the power to define what

art is in our culture. In the case of Thornton Dial, I think it’s

safe to say that any artist who produced a body of work of this scope

and significance would have long ago become a major, recognized force

within the art world.”

Cubbs maintains that the art

establishment’s failure to accord Dial this kind of “living

treasure” cultural status, to include his work in the canon of

artists from his generation, tells us more about the politics of our

art and cultural scene than it does about Dial’s art.

“He’s a black, elderly,

working-class, unlettered man from the deep rural South,” says

Cubbs. “And he has no desire to expatriate himself from his

origins. They have provided him the substance, the point of view, the

perspective from which he has offered us these incredible, probing

comments on the nature of our world, our history and our humanity.”

As this exhibition’s title, Hard

Truths, suggests, an important dimension of Dial’s work

lies in his conscious engagement with the social and political

culture in which he has lived. At first, this inhibited Dial from

seeking a public audience.

“He was very concerned about the

political nature of his work, that he might be offending the dominant

white over-culture, but also fellow members of his community,”

says Cubbs. “When he realized he would have access to a kind of

audience that was actually interested in his work as an expression of

this world-view of his, I think he became very excited. I don’t

think he’s ever pursued recognition within the art world

proper, but within the world at large, he had a dream about the

possibility of having an audience for his ideas.”

In the exhibition, visitors will be

able to follow Dial’s evolution through early, allegorical

works aimed at joining in public discourse about race and class

struggle to later pieces that grow increasingly complex and embedded

with meanings open to multiple interpretations.

“You can see a development in his

work as he’s trying to negotiate what his true potential is for

reaching out to a wide public audience,” says Cubbs. “He

starts to make art not so much for easy comprehension by the world,

but expressing some of the deepest, most troubling visions of what

our history and culture have been…They’re parables on

the nature of humanity itself.”

In this, Dial has been compared with

German artist Anselm Kiefer.

“He presents these complex,

almost archaeological in their layering, texts so that people have a

lot to look at, a lot to decipher and a lot to talk about,”

says Cubbs.

The Dial exhibition consists of 70

pieces. In figuring out her strategy for presenting this great span,

Cubbs says, “I wanted to create a kind of journey because the

works themselves are so demanding and hard-hitting; I wanted to lead

the visitor through a kind of tour of [Dial’s] world and his

expressive concerns.”

Although she’s been in

conversation with Dial for the better part of 15 years and had many

opportunities to see his works of art, Cubbs says she continues to be

“stunned by how physically arresting these pieces are to me.”

She encourages visitors to Hard

Truths to “enter into the puzzles and the mysteries and the

layered allegories of the works. Enjoy them. Discover the tiny

surprises that exist in most of them. I still suddenly discover some

incredible detail that gives me a new angle on what I’ve been

thinking about the piece – or about the world.”

As to what Dial will make of this

retrospective – which will also tour to art museums in Atlanta,

New Orleans and Charlotte, Cubbs says, “This is what would

please Thornton Dial the most: To know that others are rising to the

occasion of his work.”


Recommended for you