The Art of Alabama

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Photo: Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio
2004
Wood, steel, clothing, concrete sculpture, wire, oilcans, bottles, glove, license plate, found metal, paper collage, enamel, spray paint, and Splash Zone compound
129 x 40 x 66 inches

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Description: 

Dial's most significant piece on the politics of art making is The Art of Alabama.

Dial's most significant piece on the politics of art making is The Art of Alabama. This sculpture is a towering monument to the uncelebrated expressive practices of the black South in which old bottles, tree branches, electric wires, rusty machine parts, and other castaway materials call to mind the symbolic found-art displays of the African-American yard show. Positioned in front of the assemblage is a concrete garden statue depicting the ancient Greek character Pandora. Painted bright yellow and elevated on its own pedestal, the elegant figure serves as an icon for the aesthetic classicism and elite taste culture against which the works of "unschooled" black artists like Dial have been measured and frequently dismissed. Juxtaposing this potent symbol of Anglo-European art history with the emblems of black vernacular culture, Dial probes the sense of difference that separates the two art worlds.

Within Dial's yard-art cluster are objects that underscore the social politics separating the two artistic realms. An Alabama license plate hidden in the assemblage represents black creative aspiration and empowerment, the hard-won rights of African Americans to expressive speech and their official "license" to be artists. A stack of discarded motor oil cans at the base of the piece is a signifier for the servicing of cars once affordable only by the rich, as well as an extended metaphor for the low-level service roles typically assumed by black people. Finally, the yellow color of the classical sculpture references the term "high-yellow," a designation for light-skinned African Americans whose golden complexions symbolize the color-based caste system that places those of European origin at the top and those of African descent at the bottom.

As if to invert this social hierarchy, Dial's edifice of rural black creativity rises high above the finely sculpted figure of Pandora, overshadowing her revered aesthetic position. In many of Dial's responses to the world of "fine art," there is a feeling of competition, a desire to prove the unrecognized stature of black expression, a desire to prove the unrecognized stature of black expression in relationship to those traditions of white privilege sanctified by art history. In the spirit of such rivalry, Dial's yard assembly mockingly replicates the pose of its high art counterpart. From within the tall column of objects, a black-rubber glove suddenly reaches out as if grabbing a hanging piece of yellow cloth, while down below, the statuary clutches a similar length of drapery to her  bosom.

Although satirizing the self-aggrandizing claims of the fine art tradition and questioning its hegemony, Dial is also eager to create a dialogue across cultural boundaries. "If my art don't rub off on somebody, it ain't art. . . . If this touches anybody it got to touch them all." Dial's ambition as an artist has always been to forge a language that bridges both worlds represented in The Art of Alabama, to transform the condition of his otherness into a conversation about power, difference, and reconciliation that transcends the barriers of class, ethnicity, and geography. Dial's "high yellow" color used here to signify the hierarchy of race, is also his symbol for the intermarriage of black and white, the metaphoric union of opposing racial and social spheres.

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