Hard Truths…..the art of Thornton Dial

“Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial”

Thornton Dial is a Southern American artist.  At the age of 83, Mr Dial has a body of work that is fascinating and completely different from most artwork that I have seen.  His collection of work opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art on March 2, 2012 and it will run throughMay 20, 2012. In my opinion, this is a must see exhibit; the work is strong, provocative and bold.

Mr. Dial was born into poverty and he is self-taught and illiterate, so his work was often classified as folk or outsider artist. But that classification has irritated many of his admirers, since his work’s resembles that of other contemporary masters of his time including Jackson Pollack and Robert Rauschenberg.

Mr. Dial’s inspiration for his art is due in part to observing yard art, which is a southern African-American tradition of building sculpture from discarded material. Yard art, could have plenty of subtle meaning – the soles of shoes could represent the souls of men. But yard art tended to purposely looked like a plain pile of junk so as to not draw the attention of hostile passers-by, especially prior to the era of civil rights, when such things could cause significant problems to a black man in the south.

His work focuses on issues that are part and parcel of his world, including slavery, war, terrorism, feminism, poverty, death and civil rights.  His piece called “High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man) impressed me in its usage of a grinning Mickey Mouse toy chained to the hull of a ship. You, at once, see the humor and the sadness that permeates throughout Mr. Dial’s work.

The show also includes his piece “Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together” a striking work that appears to be made from bloodied American flags.

I had the pleasure to speak with Mr. Dial’s grandson at the opening, Thornton Dial III, and I asked him what it was like to grow up with a grandfather that made art.  He replied that “since his grandfather had always made art, it did not seem to be so unusual. It was only in later years that he began to realize that not everyone’s grandfathers made art, especially the art that his grandfather made.”  I could sense the pride in his grandfather and it was totally understandable.  Indeed, creativity continues to play a central role in the lives of the Dial family as a number of the Dial children and grandchildren carry on the rich art tradition.

There are a total of forty pieces of Thornton Dial’s work included in the exhibit at NOMA, and there are other pieces of folk art that NOMA gathered from its folk art collection which are located in the museum’s entrance hall. Thornton Dial’s work is vibrant and evocative…it makes you question what you know. In my mind that is exactly what good art should do and it is what makes this a must see exhibit!

What: An exhibit of more than 40 large-scale, politically charged paintings, drawings and sculptures by one  of America’s premier self-taught artists.

Where: TheNew OrleansMuseumof Art,1 Collins Diboll Circle,CityPark, 504.658.4100. Visit noma.org.

Admission: Adults, $10; seniors, students and active military, $8; children 6 to 17, $6; younger, free. Wednesdays free.

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