In 1984 Richard Dial established Dial Metal Patterns with the as express purpose of creating “quality wrought-iron furniture.” Relying on his expertise acquired as a machinist at Pullman Standard Company and the support of his father and brother—Thornton Dial and Thornton Dial Jr.—Richard Dial was able to profit from the failure of some large-scale industries in the Birmingham District by hiring their skilled labor to help him with his burgeoning cottage industry. His product line—”Shade Tree Comfort”—led to the use of “comfort” in a series of sculptures, dating from late 1987 to early 1989. In these masterful chair-sculptures, Richard Dial joined furniture with art, united industrial techniques with custom design and hand-finishing, and focused more often on uncomfortable situations than on comfortable ones.
When he began this series, Dial worked within an African American tradition that prizes chairs as implements of power. Such chairs may relate back to African ancestral seats on which leaders are metaphorically supported by images of their progenitors.
More specifically, Richard Dial was presented early on with the parodic inversion of this tradition in the form of his father’s ambitious Turkey Tower (c. mid-1980s), which employs a series of chair parts from Dial Metal Patterns as the skeletal framework supporting an image of a turkey. This sculpture provided the younger Dial with an impetus to recycle his industrially produced chair pieces into art.
Richard Dial’s sculptures give new life to the dead metaphors of chair legs and arms at the same time that they transform these seats into personifications of tradition. Beginning with his first art chair, an untitled piece (Untitled, 1988), Dial plays with an incarnation of tradition in the form of a chair that might offer comfort and might just as often present a situation totally untenable and discomforting. In this piece he transforms curlicues, part of the traditional decorative motif of his lawn furniture, into an abstracted handlebar mustache and muttonchops. The reference gives the piece a turn-of-the-century flavor and could allude to robber barons in the Birmingham District who hired vast numbers of black workers because they were cheap labor who would allow the companies to compete with more established industries in the North. When Richard Dial memorializes this figure in terms of his own manufactured furniture, he also makes a double joke about the fact that while white capitalists have been literally dependent on black labor, his business has also profited from an availability of surplus black labor.
While Richard Dial looked critically at white paternalism in his first sculpture, he appears to be presenting a far more generous view of it in The Comfort of the First Born. In this work an aged father supports himself with a cane and the back of a chair constituting his son. As the second son in a tightly knit family in which his father and elder brother enjoyed a particularly close relationship, Richard may have been projecting aspects of his own world. But the formality of the father’s and son’s sailorlike outfits, together with the prevalence of stripes that seem to describe and imprison them, suggests the possibility that the sculpture takes issue with generations of ensconced bureaucratic paternalism. In The Comfort and Service My Daddy Brings to Our Household, Richard Dial personalizes a countering African American position in which the father, depicted as first a conflation of household throne and shotgun house, and second as a servant ready to support the burdens of his family, assumes the dual roles of master and servant performed by Thornton Dial through the years.
Moses has traditionally been revered by African Americans as the Hoodoo man who led his people from slavery. In The Comfort of Moses and the Ten Commandments chairs, this star-crossed patriarch, who would wage war with God before succumbing, offers little consolation. Holding separated tablets painted red. perhaps as an allusion to his previous parting of the Red Sea, Moses assumes a hierarchical stance. Instead of being comforted by this chair, as the title implies, individuals who might elect to sit in it and assume Moses’ point of view find their movements obstructed by these tablets. Behind Moses are the mountain and burning bush described in the Bible; they have been abstracted as a splintered old board and a tiny flame composed of brass wires that are repeated on the tablets. In this work, the force of a god who speaks through flames and through a Hoodoo prophet is caricatured and undermined, and Moses becomes an ambiguous symbol of frustrated defiance, of no-longer-relevant acquiescence, and of understandable human confusion as to his and his people’s role. This cartoon-like patriarch can also be considered a trickster who hides his power, makes fun of his assigned role as Gods emissary, and leaves viewers wondering if his chameleon-like qualities and quixotic nature might in fact be the basis for his incredible success. One might say that Richard Dial’s The Comfort of Moses represents the postmodern discomfort of living without simple and clear rules telling one what to believe and how to act. Prevented from entering the promised land of emancipation, neither Moses nor his laws can be considered accurate guides to the present and the future.
In addition to questioning tradition in The Comfort of Moses, Richard Dial indicts it in Which Prayer Ended Slavery?. Creating a composition in two registers perched on top of a metal chair seat, Dial presents in the lower section a Caucasian figure whipping a black, another African American being hanged, and a third in chains. Above this assembly of torture, degradation, and murder are kneeling figures in black and white. Although the title seems to be asking viewers to distinguish between prayers, it is impossible to judge whether desperate pleas or calm ritualistic actions are more effective, and whether in fact they have been helpful since the effects of slavery persist. One might consider this work from the position of an agnostic who wonders if Christianity has served as a safety valve keeping African Americans enslaved.
In the brief time he transformed furniture into sculpture, Richard Dial created approximately twenty works. In these pieces, he found his position as head of Dial Metal Patterns an excellent vantage point for troping tradition as a series of anthropomorphized chairs representing past and present seats of power and disempowerment. Although in the titles for a number of his chairs, the word “comfort” appears, Richard Dial is not content to soothe anxieties and to affirm the status quo. Instead, he uses the presence/absence of chairs that are full of tradition and invitations for contemplative repose as ways to question the role of traditional power. Richard Dial’s work poses difficult questions without succumbing to the temptation to provide easy answers.