“I, Too, Am Alabama,” an eye-opening retrospective of the transcendent art of Thornton Dial, is currently on-view at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts on the UAB campus in Birmingham. Thornton Dial (1928-2016) is often lumped with groups of artists referred to as “outsider,” “self-taught,” “primitive,” or “folk” artists. The Abroms-Engel exhibition prefers the label “vernacular artist” and clarifies that Dial’s artistry holds its own with mid- to late 20th-early 21st century contemporary artists of many styles.
Over the years, I have usually viewed Dial’s art alongside other of his contemporaries in the vernacular art movement. His importance was clear in those earlier shows but walking into large galleries surrounded by nothing but Thornton Dial’s work in a variety of media makes it clear just how significant his artistic vision is.
An Alabama native, Dial was born in Sumter County and spent most of his life in Bessemer, outside Birmingham. He worked as a metalworker at Bessemer’s Pullman-Standard plant until it closed in 1981, after which he focused on his artistic output. Dial’s first solo art exhibit was in New York in 1993 and marked the beginning of his rise to recognition in the art world.
“I, Too, Am Alabama” derives its title from the Langston Hughes poem “I, Too” and its famous final line, “I, too, am America.” In the current show at Abroms-Engel, the curators, Paul Barrett, assisted by Tina Ruggieri, have assembled a large collection of Dial works from various sources and in various styles. Large hanging works are dominant, but there are sculptures, works on paper, and smaller works scattered throughout the exhibit.
Most of Dial’s work, and something he has in common with other vernacular artists, consists of elements of assemblage. His incorporation of found objects includes toys, metals, cloth, plastics, shoes, gloves, tree branches, gravel, rope, carpet, soda bottles, hickory nuts, and myriad other objects. I think that one of the elements that makes this work most striking to me is that these found objects are most often embedded within layers of paints – enamels, spray paints, oils. These painted coatings transform the artworks from found to finished.
In “Fairfield,” for example, a found patchwork quilt is merged onto a canvas, flanked by two shadowy quilters, one of whom looks squarely at the viewer. “Separation,” a muted abstraction, is beautiful to gaze upon as other, smaller, suggestions of words and images appear among its various fragments. The complexity of works like “Nobody Know What Go on Behind the Jungle” and “How Things Work: The Parade of Life” demands extended and repeat viewing and, still, obscured images emerge each time.
Dial’s work addresses social issues and history, especially the history of Blackness, civil rights, and the concept of otherness in the United States. His recurring motif of the tiger is a symbol of survival. The viewer must ponder these works to find intrinsic messages. With Dial, an agenda never supersedes his artistic agency; these are, first and foremost, masterful creations of an assured individual vision.