Thornton Dial’s Drawings in the Spotlight

Thornton Dial recently told The New Yorker that the first thing he ever made as a small child was a miniature horse and carriage, fashioned by stringing together two grasshoppers and a matchbox; he called it The Green Horses. He recalls making things constantly to keep busy as a child and through adulthood. Now in his mid-eighties, Dial is an acclaimed artist who has broken the mold of “outsider art,” which largely marginalized his career until the 21st century. In 2000, Dial was included in the Whitney Biennial, and thereafter he became widely exhibited, including a touring museum retrospective in 2011. In 2014, Michelle Grabner, a curator for the upcoming Whitney Biennial, told us that Dial is still one to watch.

Born in a cornfield in Emelle, Alabama, Dial was only educated through the third grade, and never learned to read or write; instead he developed his own language through drawing and building things, which now form a massive body of allegorical and intricate works of art. In an article explaining why Dial’s work should not be classified as “Outsider Art,” Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times said, “his energy and fluent line, abstracted in maelstroms of color, easily call to mind Pollock and de Kooning.” Such comparisons are all the more impressive since Dial’s formation as an artist was independent of these masters and their artworks, something which few artists of his generation can claim.

While he is well known for assemblage sculptures like Lost Cows, made from the bones of several deceased cattle, Dial’s drawings are now in the spotlight as they travel to the West Coast for the first time in “Life in the Shade: Drawings by Thornton Dial” at Paulson Bott Press. Like his sculptures, Dial’s drawings are lyrical compositions featuring a series of symbolic motifs, allegories of social and political themes found throughout his works. This selection, created over two decades, presents line drawings, mostly of women, in expressive, twisted forms, with elements of nature including birds, eggs, nests, fish, and tigers, often painted with vibrant swathes of watercolor. Tigers are commonly found throughout Dial’s works and are meant to represent African-Americans facing and overcoming struggles. Individually intriguing, this selection of works-on-paper together forms a visual narrative, evoking Dial’s unique style, depth, and ingenuity.

Life in the Shade: Drawings by Thornton Dial” is on view at Paulson Bott Press, Berkeley, California, Jan. 8th–Jun. 2, 2014.

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