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Dial Tone

A septuagenarian creates evocative art from cast-off objects

Thornton Dial Sr.'s Meat (2003) has an undulating surface painted in raw, visceral pinks and reds. Dial builds up the surfaces of his paintings, not with paint -- but with detritus. Meat is constructed from wads of clothing attached to a panel and coated in thick, gloopy paint that shines like marbled flesh. It's a brutal work; the surface feels violent, like flesh and bone ripped apart. In the upper-right part of the painting is a tiny rectangle of red-and-white-striped fabric with a dark brushed outline that looks like an American flag. It's attached to the carnage of the painting like a product label: Made in the U.S.A.

Dial's art is dynamic, intense and cut with social and political references. Work he's done since 2000 is on view in "Thornton Dial in the 21st Century," organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Tinwood Alliance. Five years seems like a fairly brief time span to cover in a show that fills most of the downstairs galleries of the MFAH's Beck Building, accompanied by a massive catalog. But Dial is prolific: The show includes 78 works. In addition to the artist's constructions on panels, there are drawings and freestanding sculptural works.

The front of Everybody's Welcome in Peckerwood City (2005) is pieced together from boards painted in crisp blue and white to depict the quaint facade of a wooden house. Dial has attached a little carved arch over the doorway. The whole thing looks cute, until you notice the spill of blood-red paint at the base of the work. Walk around the sculpture; the back side is raw, jagged wood and wire with scraps of fabric stained a blood-red. Peckerwood City could also be Cracker City or White Trash City; Dial's title mocks the twisted hypocrisy of small Southern towns where "everybody" was definitely not welcome. The charming, Potemkin-village exterior obscures the brutality that lies behind it.

The spectacular Stars of Everything is a 
mixture of wrath and glory.
Courtesy of the artist and Tinwood Media, Atlanta
The spectacular Stars of Everything is a mixture of wrath and glory.

Dial was born in 1928 in Emelle, Alabama -- not the best year or location to be born poor, black and illegitimate. He had to work from an incredibly early age and never received an education. As a toddler, he was sent to live at a cousin's farm, and by age five he was tending animals and working in the fields. He went on to work as a housepainter, carpenter and pipefitter, and then to spend 30 years welding boxcars for Pullman. He used those skills to make his own objects and constructions. Following in the rural Southern tradition of creativity from poverty, he made art from cast-off objects.

As with many artists, Dial's background and experiences are integral to the making of his work. His life story is particularly powerful and heartwrenching. But Dial's work also stands alone as independent artwork -- it's not dependent on biography for its interest or success. Dial emerged in the late '80s as an "outsider" artist, but his work has been included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, the ultimate mark of being an "insider." (The ongoing handwringing about what to call art made by people without a formal art education who do not come out of the art world is migraine-inducing. Let's just call it art and go from there.)

Stars of Everything (2004) is a spectacular work in which a figure constructed from old clothes levitates in the center of a massive canvas. A paint-encrusted rug is hunched up around his shoulders, and his anteaterlike head is made from a dented bicycle seat. His legs are splayed out in a broad stance, the pants legs draping baroquely. A shirt is stretched over his distorted torso. He's surrounded by masses of starlike/flowerlike shapes made from the colored interiors of paint cans, cut down the sides and splayed out like petals or rays of light. There's something powerful and awesome about the piece, a mixture of wrath and glory.

Dial's drawings, light and fluidly elegant, offer a direct contrast to his heavily worked constructions. He depicts figurative images using sparing lines on white paper and translucent spots of color. If Dial's multimedia constructions call to mind Rauschenberg and Kiefer, his drawings feel like de Koonings cut with Matisse.

The number and strength of works Dial has created during a little more than five years is impressive. Although his approach to materials remains consistent, his ideas and subject matter are continuously evolving. Overall, the work resists becoming formulaic and repetitive, a danger with high-productivity artists. But there are less successful works in the show -- ones that feel overworked and could have been edited out for a tighter presentation. What Dial really needs is a retrospective. It would be wonderful to see the evolution of his work. And he's pushing 80.

Why isn't a show of this grand scale a retrospective? The current exhibition really should be called "Works from the Collection of the Tinwood Alliance." According to the exhibition checklist, Tinwood owns 65 of the 78 works on view. Rather than organizing the show independently, the MFAH seems to have relied too heavily on Tinwood.

William Arnett, the director of the Tinwood Alliance, brought Dial's work to the world stage. Under Arnett's enthusiastic promotion, Dial's pieces now garner five and six figures a pop. But Arnett's financial relationship with Dial has raised questions in the past. A note in the front of the catalog states that unless otherwise noted, "all works of art photographed in studio settings are from the William Arnett Collection of the Tinwood Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation dedicated to advancing the understanding of vernacular art and artists." It seems unusual for such a large portion of an artist's recent body of work to be immediately acquired by one organization.

A 1993 60 Minutes profile of Arnett by Morley Safer raised questions about the nature of Arnett's financial relationship with Dial, asserting that Arnett exploited Dial and essentially had him as a tenant artist in a $340,000 house Arnett owned. Essays in the catalog state that Arnett took out a second mortgage on his own home for Dial, who had difficulty buying in the all-white neighborhood.

Amazingly, the MFAH's exhibition catalog features four essays that contain rebuttals of the 12-year-old TV segment. The editor of the catalog is William Arnett's son Paul; Paul wrote one of the essays; and the catalog was published by Tinwood Books, Atlanta, in association with the MFAH. One essay implies that the program's questioning of Arnett's motives was demeaning to Dial, while another implies that the show was "foiling black artistic progress." Still another describes a monthly stipend agreement between Arnett and Dial that counts toward the purchase of works. Arnett gets right of first refusal up to the value of the stipend and can purchase additional work at a "mutually agreed upon" price. While it sounds a little "company store," the deal might be highly equitable. 60 Minutesmay have been patronizing and nasty toward Dial, but the fact that Arnett is also using an exhibition catalog he produced as his own platform is strange, to say the least.

Letting collectors generate exhibitions brings in agendas that have nothing to do with the work itself. A similar situation happened with the Pigozzi Collection show, in which one Swiss guy's collection became the definition of "African Art Now." It's good that the MFAH is bringing in more diverse exhibitions, but it needs to go a step further and put the money out there so it can self-organize and take the curatorial lead. That's what the MFAH Latin American Art Department has been empowered to do, and the results have been stunning.

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