Art review: ‘Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial’ at High

There is a certain stereotype of folk artists that fixes in the mind, of iconoclastic outsiders, often hyper-religious, superstitious, prone to visions and conspiracy.

But 84-year-old African-American self-taught artist Thornton Dial, the subject of a remarkable survey at the High Museum, “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial,” tends to blow such preconceptions about this art genre sky-high.

Despite Dial’s humble provenance as an illiterate welder and self-taught artist in Bessemer, Ala., his work suggests something else entirely. If you didn’t know a thing about Dial, you might think “Hard Truths” was the product of an angry young contemporary artist attuned to global politics and incensed by the injustices of class and race.

Commanding three levels of the High Museum’s Anne Cox Chambers wing, “Hard Truths,” which runs through March 3 and is curated by the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Joanne Cubbs, offers a comprehensive view of this important artist’s work.

This broad array of 59 works covers two decades in the artist’s career. Dial balances the lyrical and sweet in his delicate drawings — reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s early illustrations — in charcoal and colored pencil, alongside the monumental, propulsive and spirited tone of his large-scale paintings coated with tar-thick paint, insight and anger. Those monumental assemblages of paint and found objects address social injustices such as poverty, but also Sept. 11, the war in Iraq and the African slave trade. It is often dark and troubling work.

Like many folk artists, Dial is a master at using the materials at hand, employing baby dolls and Barbies, scraps of fabric, metal paint cans and even the occasional animal corpse to tell his story. His assemblage paintings are three-dimensional riots of energy-packed surface with all of those found objects often working in concert with a color palette that ranges from sooty blacks and mournful grays to glorious reds, yellows and oranges in a room focused on the hopeful, spiritual side of Dial’s vision.

More often, the work is scathing, as in the large sculpture “Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City,” a kind of stage set that lampoons the false front of Southern benevolence and good manners.

On one side of this wooden facade of a Southern home — the size of a child’s playhouse or a stage set — is a welcome mat, but if you look closely, there is blood leaking from beneath the exterior walls. Walk behind that friendly facade, and there is a chaotic tangle of wood and wires and destruction. It is a concise and chilling peek into the vantage of a black man growing up in the South, where threat can lurk even behind the most pleasant surfaces.

But Dial looks outward, too, to the long shadow Sept. 11 casts over the entire country and to global politics, addressed in a humorous, monumental array of sculptures whose centerpiece is “Driving to the End of the World: Sheik,” a work flanked by contorted hunks of auto parts. In “Sheik,” an Arab figure in a headdress conveys succinctly our enslavement to modern man’s exoskeleton — the car — that locks us in a crippling dependency with faraway nations.

But then, in a significant change of tone, Dial switches gears on the exhibition’s second floor. A gallery is dominated by the artist’s light, sherbet-colored drawings that often depict women in almost randy, swooping, giddy terms. Often nude and brimming with life, their forms fill the drawings.

In the compositionally inventive “Last Trip Home (Diana’s Funeral)” from 1997, Dial depicts Princess Diana’s funeral. He captures her visage with a minimum of details — that distinctive hair and downcast eyes. Diana’s face dominates a landscape where church, grave and wedding veil are combined into one sheltering structure. A gray swath below Diana represents the masses of her faceless admirers. Tender, quiet, this and other drawings stand in stark contrast to Dial’s incensed canvases, but they inspire a deeper appreciation for the depths of this fascinating man’s interests and aesthetics.

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