Within the evocative body of rich and compelling work by Thornton Dial Jr. is a piece called Balls Together: The Friendship of Men, part sculpture, and part Christmas lawn art, this is something of a self-portrait of the younger Dial, whose nickname is "Little Buck." The heads of three male deer—or bucks—grace the chair, two on the back posts and one on the arm. Each head is independent; each might stand alone. But in this work the three heads play off and support each other, resulting in a presentation more powerful than any single image.
As the eldest son and namesake of the acclaimed artist Thornton Dial Sr., known as “Buck,” and the father of Thornton Dial III, a talented artist himself, Dial Jr. is clearly part of the triumvirate depicted in Balls Together: The Friendship of Men, which can be seen as his tribute to father-son relationships. It can also be viewed as a classic Dial Jr. take on male bonding.
A devoted family man, Dial Jr. lives with his wife and younger children on the family compound owned by his mother and father, and works part-time with his two brothers at Dial Metal Patterns, the family furniture business. Caretaker to the family property, he is caught between his love of farming and his commitment to the business.
Not surprisingly, the art of Thornton Dial Jr. reflects these various internal struggles. While his work can generally be categorized as assemblages, furniture, and sculpture—the latter genre composed largely of crucifixes—his themes remain fairly consistent: nature, the working man, and the African American experience. Much less prolific an artist than his father (Dial Sr. now makes art full-time), be will sometimes work on subjects similar to those of his father. Made some six months after his father’s work of the same title, Dial Jr.’s Slave Ship is a more spare but equally explicit depiction of the horrors of the slave trade. But the two men work entirely independent of each other at different times and in different places, and observers say the father is more often influenced by the son than the other way around.
While Dial Jr.’s sense of the ironic has strong ties to his father’s humor, he has developed his own sharp-edged use of stereotypes as satire His icon for the black man—the lion, king of the jungle in Africa—becomes the gorilla in America. His simple, blood-red King of Africa in America reflects this transition most vividly, showing the African lion with a simian face.
In The Gorilla Lends a Helping Hand to the United States and the Telephone Company, a subject he has dealt with at least six times, the giant hand of the gorilla—a clear depiction of brute strength—holds up the black woman who not only serves as the communications link to the rest of the country, but who also has all the answers in the Yellow Pages on her lap. As a further twist, the woman’s hair is made from a mop head, suggesting the shift from domestic to office work for this generation of black women.
Indeed, Dial Jr.’s perspective reflects the cynicism, irreverence, and popular sensibility of a younger generation. In Trees to Climb, where the trees are smaller than the gorilla, he sees less opportunity for the working man and woman. Too often African Americans are "chained down” by addictions, particularly to the bottle, as he practically spells out in King of the Jungle, which consists of a chair and table with the head of a lion. Ironically, this work was the result of a commission by Absolut Vodka, who, through the Museum of American Folk Art, had asked a number of artists to design potential ads for that distiller. It is not likely that this was the message they had in mind.
Thornton Dial Jr. has no blind respect for government, depicting the chief executive as a lazy, lolling frog, and his staff as many inert, brown stones in The President and His Staff Trying to Decide What to Do about Children on Drugs. In his autobiographical Home Sweet Home, which was made the week he left his high-risk job at the Pullman factory (apparently because he was making more money as an artist), he also paints himself as a frog, albeit a happy, grinning, strutting frog, gleefully back in the vividly hued swamp with his duck, turtle, and insect friends. The implication of this pair of paintings is that we are all equals—frogs under the skin!
Dial Jr. again uses nature to make a social statement in Tornadoes Don’t Discriminate with Nobody. Into a plywood panel he carves houses and trees. They are caught up in a swirl of red, white, and blue. Causing this indiscriminate turmoil, and altering the order of what is likely meant to represent American society, is Nature, a cut out funnel of corrugated metal.
Stylistically, his work tends to have something of a pop quality, employing such features as the giant sunglasses and applique-like stars in his tribute to Ray Charles, A Man Can Be a Star. A recurring image is his jumbo American flag, seen in such pieces as Trees to Climb and The Gorilla Lends a Helping Hand.
Dial Jr.’s crucifixes, as well, are more pop than pious. He is not a churchgoer, and there is nothing in his family’s Baptist religion that would encourage the making ot religious images. More likely, his Jesuses are working men. In one, his Jesus is a steelworker who bleeds steel from his wounds and is made of chain. In yet another I’ll Be Back, Jesus takes on the persona of an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type tough guy.
In Mary and Joseph Bringing a New Meaning to Life, Dial summons up the yard art/creche tradition that has been such an influence on his work. He creates a half-life-size tableau of the pregnant Mary astride the back of a donkey being led by Joseph on foot. The infrastructure of the sculpture is steel, a symbol of strength. Yet the figures are all carefully wrapped in rope, an unintentional resemblance to the Kongo tradition of concealing spiritual objects through wrapping or bundling. However, as a final touch, Dial brings his figures squarely into the present by spray-painting the entire piece in red, white, and blue.
In his furniture, Dial Jr. harks back to the family business. While some pieces employ the metal the Dials use in their garden furniture, other works, like the Snapping Turtle Chair, have a wooden frame. In this case the image, the snapping turtle, is a common one in African American folklore, and his use of textures—burlap, wood, shag carpet—suggests an Old World, low-tech sensibility.
For Thornton Dial Jr., his name is both burden and blessing. As an artist and as a man, he has been nurtured in a warm family environment that has encouraged and stimulated his creativity. He has found his own voice, which can be serious or satirical but is almost always strong and clear. Some people will always judge him against his father. In the long run, only history can tell what that judgment will be.