You have to hand it to Thornton Dial and his family. They were actually the ones to suggest an early morning breakfast reception this past Friday at the Ackland Art Museum as a private event for select UNC students and staff (though yours truly luckily scored an invite.) But the gathering also included those who helped organize the Ackland’s new exhibition of Dial’s drawings and the authors who contributed to the show’s splendid catalog. The reception offered an extraordinary opportunity to hear Dial himself speak about his art and answer questions in conjunction with the just opened exhibition at UNC titled Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper.
The opportunity to meet and speak with Dial, his son Richard and daughter Mattie was amazing enough but the event also afforded the chance to preview the exhibition in their company as well. It’s an intriguing show focusing on a specific body of work from 1990-1991 when Dial spent sustained time and effort producing a portfolio of drawings in response to a particularly scathing Atlanta Journal Constitution review that questioned his drawing ability. (Those with AJC archive access can dig it up here.) The work on display features signature elements from Dial’s work: the tiger, roosters, fish, birds and also lots of ladies all with strong metaphorical roots and life cycle narrative purposes, rooted in the artist’s signature robust, hardy and vigorous style.
Dial’s work has long been grouped in with ‘Outsider’ or ‘Folk’ Art. Now 82 years old, the artist is after all self taught and hailing as he does from the rural deep South of Alabama the categorization makes some sense at least initially. Also to be factored in is Dial’s emergence during the 1980′s folk art craze (when he seriously began devoting time to making art after a long career working in the Pullman factory in Alabama) and also the collection of his work by Bill Arnett long a champion of self taught African American artists of the Southeastern United States. But as with his working methods, Dial’s story runs deeper than first appearances and as time has gone by, there has been a gradual recognition that Dial is, to put it simply, a significant contemporary artist all categorizations aside.
The artist is largely known for his assemblage sculptures crafted out of all sorts of found object stuff (you name it and Dial has probably worked it into a piece at some point.) This drawing show is also an interesting counterpoint to a traveling exhibition of Dial’s work currently at the New Orleans Museum of Art and which will be on view at the Mint Museum in Charlotte later this summer (and I readily admit that I am eagerly looking forward to that show as well.)
A personal favorite moment during the gallery walk-through was the appearance of Ms. Hill’s 2nd grade class from Forest View Elementary School in Durham who were visiting the Ackland on a class trip. The students rather miraculously emerged during our walk through just as Ackland Director of External Affairs Amanda Hughes described the enthusiastic response of local students to Dial’s work New Generation (2002) and Walking with the Pickup Bird (2002) in the museum’s collection. When the students formed an impromptu line to greet Mr. Dial and shake his hand it seemed a sort of microcosm of some of the best parts of Dial’s work in general. Immediacy, sudden surprise and unexpected juxtapositions can bring out amazing things in life as in art.
Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper is on view at the Ackland Art Museum through July 1, 2012.