At Santa Fe’s 333 Montezuma Arts, an exhibition brings together rare early works by Thornton Dial and recent sculpture by Lonnie Holley, two artists of the Birmingham School, working in the Southern Vernacular tradition, who have been championed by Atlanta-based collector and folk-art expert William Arnett since the 1980s. Dial and Holley employ methods of recycling found materials into toys or larger-scale decorative objects, engaging in a centuries-old visual tradition that has become associated with notions of folk and outsider art—not unrelated to the quilting customs adapted from African weaving techniques and passed down through generations of Southern Black women.
A skilled machinist who labored for years at a Pullman factory in Birmingham, Dial also produced virtuosic metalwork and sculpture that draws comparisons with the creations of Louise Bourgeois or Anselm Kiefer. Many of Dial’s early paintings, seen here, seem to reference Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Jean Fautrier, and even reverberate with the more contemporaneous Neo-Expressionism of Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. These raw, gestural works—such as Running with the Mule, Running for Freedom (1990), Everybody Rolling (1995), Dark Day on the Road (1993), and Cousin Irma’s Garden (1996)—build up layers of psychological drama in thick pours and mottled scraps of material that drift along various narrative threads (natural disaster, historical oppression, hope) between the abstract and the figurative.
Clustered nearby, Holley’s newest suite of assemblage sculptures—all produced during a residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation—playfully merge natural and machined materials into potent abstract configurations, as in Sun on It, From the Ocean to the Air and Bending (all 2014). The graceful wire twists and suspended aluminum elements of Birds on the Road (2014) trace more suggestive patterns of winged flight, while the resolved feminine features of the driftwood carving Root Mama (2014), adorned with shells and a headdress of lichen-coated branches, when viewed from an oblique angle, disappears into a loose bundle of faceless floating debris.
“The Deeper The Southern Roots: Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley” is on view at 333 Montezuma Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 27th–Dec. 31st, 2014.