Heaven and Hell on Earth

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Photo: Gamma One Conversions
1995
Corn husks, corncobs, dried mushrooms, roots, burned wood, clothing, bedding, toys, wire, metal, fabric, Christmas tree ornament, rope, carpet, paintbrush, other found materials, oil, enamel, spray paint, and industrial sealing compound on canvas on wood
81 x 111 x 11 inches

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The title reads like that of a secular gospel song. With its divided fields of black and aqua, the piece is a kind of response to Rebirth, a 1987 painting by Ronald Lockett.

The title reads like that of a secular gospel song. With its divided fields of black and aqua, the piece is a kind of response to Rebirth, a 1987 painting by Ronald Lockett. Although Lockett's piece also questioned traditional assumptions about everlasting life, here the terms of reward and punishment are taken away from the hereafter and anchored firmly in the realm of the living. In addition, the autobiographically skeletal form of Lockett's Rebirth is transformed into a series of ghostly domes that Dial identifies as "the government." (For Dial's region, the black migrations to urban Birmingham were supported by New Deal policies.) At first, the piece appears a kind of postindustrial or Luddite dream of longed-for return to the countryside and to former, simpler ways: the turquoise field at right is studded with children's clothes and toys that contrast starkly with the charred scrap metal of the black zone at left. Strongly implied are associations of colors and materials with states of human social, economic, and biological development, and for the ex-factory-worker Dial return to a rural, innocent idyll seems almost irresistible.

However while most of the materials used in the piece are allied with one zone or another; the entire substrate is studded with two unusual materials: dried toad-stools and corncobs.These are objects that, in Dial's opinion, exist beyond salvage or conventional categories of reuse. Yet these two materials' abject worthlessness is the key to their power Toadstools are a poison and also a hallucinogen: their presence implies a complex interaction between life and death and among interpretations—delusions—of past and future happiness.

Upon close inspection, the two visual fields abandon their simple loyalties to a heaven or to a hell. Both regions contain gold, but the color appears in different concentrations, nuggeted together in the industrial black zone and more dispersed within the meadows. A guitar and harmonica, connoting worldly comfort characteristic of music, are embedded in the "hellish" black region. More trenchantly, the clothes and toys of the "pastoral" area are grotesque rather than cute (such as a pair of plastic gnomes riding a seesaw), and include numerous promotional knick-knacks as are given away by fast-food restaurants with their children's-meal-deals. Elsewhere on the aqua field, among the children's clothes are sections of a blanket emblazoned with clocks stopped at seven o' clock-a startin' time and quittin' time without end, when dawn and dusk, youth and old age, run together

A well-worn paintbrush and a fragment from a chair made by Dial Metal Patterns (the cottage business founded by Dial and his sons) are embedded along the zones' border, personal emblems of an artist and man who has known both worlds and knows better than to romanticize either one.

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