Thornton Dial’s journey as an artist has been an extraordinary one. Born in 1928 and raised in dire poverty in the rural South, he spent his childhood toiling in the farm fields of western Alabama, followed by decades laboring in the region’s factories and heavy industry. Throughout the years, Dial also made “things” and increasingly used his art to comment upon the human spectacle around him.
Dial creates his paintings and sculptures from a wide range of symbolically charged found objects. Often he engulfs his dense accumulations of discarded materials in expressionist brushstrokes of color. Filled with rich allegories, his work invites us to discover many layers of meaning in its writhing forms, curious juxtapositions, and powerful imagery.
In addition to his paintings and sculptures, Dial has made innumerable drawings since the early 1990s. Highly lyrical in nature, these line renderings depict many of the same social and political themes represented in his other works. They include images of an African slave vessel, the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11, Barack Obama’s inauguration as America’s first black president, and the wily tiger character that served as the artist’s early symbol of African American struggle.
From the beginning, the most prevalent subjects of Dial’s drawings have been women. His earliest works on paper are sensuous female figures, often joined by his legendary tiger cat or shown in communion with emblems of nature—birds, egg-filled nests, and fish. Beginning in the late 1990s, he also began to create portraits of real-world women, from athlete Florence Griffith-Joyner and the infamous Monica Lewinsky to Princess Diana on the day of her funeral. As in all of Dial’s drawings, these intimate and elegant depictions contrast dramatically with the large scale and strident physicality that characterize all of his other forms of art making.
An exhibition of paintings and sculptural assemblages by Thornton Dial, Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, is on view at Mint Museum Uptown.