Dialing the Boss: Thornton Dial’s Works on Paper at Wiregrass

Published May 6th 2023
By Danielle Bernten

IMAGE CREDIT//Jerry Siegel / Thornton Dial, McCalla, Alabama, 2007 / Archival inkjet print / Courtesy of the artist / ©️ Jerry Siegel

The Wiregrass Museum’s small exhibition of Thornton Dial’s works on paper is on view from January 20, 2023-March 25, 2023, entitled, “I, Too, am Thornton Dial.” The palmy collaboration between the Wiregrass, Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts at UAB and the Samford University Art Gallery, presents a calming and fluid narrative of black Southern life and Dial’s ideological discourse. These are not the monumental assemblages nor found scavenged objects that we normally attribute with Thornton Dial. These compact pieces of charcoal, pencil, and a few paintings, also present sheer formalistic virtuosity.  Semi-abstracted faces and figures faintly protrude from the walls. Some sculptures also stand in small scale attention, plainly returning the viewer’s gaze, daring us to question their sophistication and importance in the field of American art history. His continued identification with “outsider art” or “vernacular art” remains a problematic one upon sincere examination of these smaller works. Dial is fully incorporated in his community and family and displays their triumphs and tribulations with intellectual rigor, soundness, and vibrancy.  The materials and styles may be simple, but its process and delivery are pure fax. 

Curated by Paul Barrett, the show highlights the jaggy elegance of the artist in his use of syncopated lines and colors which sometimes envelop us in circular labyrinths of perpetual grace.  But this grace has been hard earned and sustained through the sheer persistence of Thornton Dial.  Mr. Dial was a hard-working man who focused on his artistic practice full-time after his 30 years of employment with the Pullman Standard Company.  His renditions of black Southern life, American politics, racism, and joy are created with rough markings and welded together his thoughts on the political and poverty issues of his day. The American South, with all its gentility, was a place that Thornton Dial recognized as limiting for his race and class.  Yet, he stayed. With little education and promise of financial success, Mr. Dial continued to forge an aesthetic identity of black freedom and pride. The son of Bessamer, Alabama conspicuously drew from his southern creative well. 

Installation view | top left, bottom left, right: Thornton Dial, Untitled, 2005, Thornton Dial, Falling From the Top, no date, Thornton Dial, Counting Birds, no date

In Falling from the Top, a black woman tumbles to the uneven ground, almost head-first, as the clouds and winds shake her down and lift the tiny home upwards.  This instability reflects the uncertain path Dial chose as a visual prophet for the black experience in the deep South. Dial created worlds in which nature, the heavens, man, and animal engage in continuous dialogue regarding their internal and external habitats.  This artful instability experienced by the three black figures resonates even in a post COVID-19 pandemic world, where the minority laborer bears the brunt of America’s health, labor, and financial woes the most.  The work is undated but remains perennially relevant.  When America sneezes, we know who catches and dies from COVID-19, and justifiably fears its free government vaccination programs. 

Installation view | left, top, bottom: Thornton Dial, Game Time (Contest), 1994, Thornton Dial, Untitled, 1991, Thornton Dial, This Is What People Like to Wear When They Out For Business (29), 1990

The importance of this image and title cannot be underestimated.  A dedicated and industrious employee who did not move up the ranks of his company, Mr. Dial verbalized his frustration at never becoming an employee who could wear a suit and tie to work in Celia Carey’s 2007 moving documentary, Mr. Dial Has Something to Say.  He remained tied to iron and cement work.  Nevertheless, the work paints the portrait of the continuous activity and aspirations of his people, to have the means to purchase executive clothing and to wear them not just for church or special events, but to work. He does not place the figures in physical position to make us question their romantic or familial relationship, he places the anonymous black subjects as egalitarian colleagues striving for financial security. Barrett successfully demonstrates that Dial’s works on paper can be as powerful and poignant as large assemblages. "I, Too, am Thornton Dial," assembles an explosion of textures, colors, and African-American experiences created by the strong hands of deceased Southern folk artist, Thornton Dial in his home state.  While Thornton Dial’s works have increased in critical acclaim and popularity, his works are not seen in solo shows in his beloved Alabama. Wiregrass has pushed to remedy some of this absence. Dial’s small scale drawings and figures are the memos that he has written to us.  We have been placed on notice and served. Thornton Dial’s imaginative works on paper are serious business.  

Danelle Bernten is a doctoral student studying modern and contemporary art. Her primary interest focuses on African-American art and arts of the African diaspora. Danelle received her BA from Princeton University and her Master’s in Art History from Louisiana State University, where her research focused on the early works of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Ms. Bernten studies the intersections of art history with graffiti, street art and vandalism, censorship and political protest of the minority artist, and southern folk art and spirituality. Prior to her doctoral studies, Ms. Bernten worked at the LSU Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection, and as a grants and contract analyst for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Some of her writings have been published in the Journal of Art Crime, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and Steam Ticket (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse),