Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial is the most extensive survey of Thornton Dial’s art ever mounted. Depicting the tragedies and triumphs of humanity, he moves the discourse of contemporary art-making into new territory and offers an unflinching vision of the world that invites us to examine even our hardest truths.
Lost Cows, 2000–2001
Cow skeletons, steel, golf bag, golf ball, mirrors, enamel, and Splash Zone compound.Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.The spooky characters in this work are assembled from the bones of a small herd of cattle that perished soon after Dial acquired them. They are a self-mocking reference to his lost investment and an eerie elegy to the old rural South. The assemblage is also a meditation on the cycle of life and death. Rising above the scene are the triangular rooflines of a slaughterhouse and hanging at the center is a leather golf bag, a wry reference to the cow’s rebirth as consumer product. Dial has crafted a memento mori—a reminder of universal mortality—by placing mirrors in the eye sockets of one of his phantom cows to capture viewers’ tiny reflections.
Stars of Everything, 2004
Paint cans, plastic cans, spray paint cans, clothing, wood, steel, carpet, plastic straws, rope, oil, enamel, spray paint, and Splash Zone compound on canvas on wood.Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.This bloated and downtrodden American eagle is Dial’s latest embodiment of black struggle. Its ratty suit is festooned with old carpet and strands of rope—the artist’s familiar markers of social oppression. Half buzzard, the figure is also a surreal self-portrait of Dial himself as a scavenger or “pickup bird” who finds creative sustenance in scraps and constructs his art from the world’s detritus. Here, the bird presides over a universe fashioned from Dial’s used paint cans, a colorful star field that seems both to satirize celebrity and represent a genuine quest for success.
The Art of Alabama, 2004
Wood, steel, clothing, concrete sculpture, wire, cans, bottles, glove, license plate, found metal, paper collage, enamel, spray paint, and Splash Zone compound.Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.Dial’s monument to neglected art forms of the black South calls to mind the found-object displays of the African American yard show in which his own art is rooted. Positioned in front of the assemblage is a concrete garden statue of the mythological Greek character Pandora, which represents Western “high art” traditions. Dial introduced this Classical figure in order to challenge and parody the privileged realm of “fine art,” but he is also eager to create a dialogue that bridges both art worlds. In his words: “If my art don’t rub off on somebody, it ain’t art. . . . If this touches anybody, it got to touch them all.”
Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together, 2003
Mattress coils, chicken wire, clothing, can lids, found metal, plastic twine, wire, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood.Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, James E. Roberts Fund, Deaccession Sculpture Fund, Xenia and Irwin Miller Fund, Alice and Kirk McKinney Fund, Anonymous IV Art Fund, Henry F. and Katherine DeBoest Memorial Fund, Martha Delzell Memorial Fund, Mary V. Black Art Endowment Fund, Elizabeth S. Lawton Fine Art Fund, Emma Harter Sweetser Fund, General Endowed Art Fund, Delavan Smith Fund, General Memorial Art Fund, Deaccessioned Contemporary Art Fund, General Art Fund, Frank Curtis Springer & Irving Moxley Springer Purchase Fund, and the Mrs. Pierre F. Goodrich Endowed Art Fund.Created just after the start of the Iraq War, this painting is a commentary on human conflict that turns the flag’s patriotic red and white into bloody bandages festooned across a battlefield. Lying together on a floating ground made from mattress coils are two nearly invisible figures—one black and the other white—which symbolize human divisiveness and America’s historical struggles for freedom, liberty, and equality. Through greed and conflict, Dial seems to suggest, we have made our own hard bed, and our only hope is that we find a way to lie in it together.
Construction of the Victory, 1997
Artificial flowers and plants, crutches, fabric, clothing, rope carpet, wood, window screen, found metal, wire, oil, enamel, spray paint, and Splash Zone compound on canvas on wood.Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.Made shortly after Dial’s recovery from a life-threatening illness, this piece captures the artist’s vision of death and the afterlife. The central figure is a symbolic everyman represented by a pair of black pants partially ascended into heaven. Freed from earthly hardships, the figure has thrown down crutches that symbolize the struggle to survive life’s obstacles. And as they fall, the crutches form a “V” for victory. Strands of carpet rope, stretched across the scene, allude to the web of life, while red refers to the veil of blood and flesh that separates this world from the next.
The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle, 2003
Plastic soda bottles, doll, clothing, bedding, wire, found metal, rubber glove, turtle shell, artificial flowers, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood.Collection of Nancy and Tim Grumbacher.This sumptuous metaphysical assemblage depicts the origins of life. It brims with vegetation cast in a glowing yellow, Dial’s coding for racial unity. Within the composition of snipped-tin trees, floral fabrics, artificial plants, and an imaginative species of flower made from the sliced-off bottoms of plastic soda bottles is a doll representing newborn humanity. Above its head hangs a glove, the hand of divine creation.
Thornton Dial’s highly original works provide compelling commentary on the most pervasive challenges of our time—from reflections on race and class struggle in America to haunting meditations on events of contemporary global concern.
He creates dense accumulations of symbolically charged discarded materials, often engulfing them in expressionistic 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. Dial’s paintings and assemblages draw inspiration from the rich aesthetic traditions of the black South. Among these is the African American yard show, a highly influential yet little-recognized genre of found-object sculptural display that employs cast-off materials as a form of encoded visual language.
Born in 1928 and raised in poverty in the rural South, Thornton Dial spent his childhood not in school but toiling in the fields of western Alabama. During the following decades, he worked as a laborer in the region’s heavy industry.
Throughout the years, Dial made a variety of objects through which he commented on the human spectacle. His creations began to receive attention from the established art world in the mid-1980s. Since then, his work has been exhibited and collected by some of the nation’s most important art institutions and was featured in the prestigious Whitney Biennial.