Photo: Phil Skinner
November 7, 2012
“Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial,” the newly opened exhibition at the High Museum of Art, commands seven galleries and all three floors of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing — a lot of valuable Peachtree Street real estate.
Yet the display of 59 wall-mounted assemblages, free-standing sculptures and drawings form such a potent critique of social issues in America, and Dial is such a driven and prolific art-maker, one doesn’t doubt the 20-year retrospective could overtake another three stories.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider the response to “Hard Truths” when it opened at the Indianapolis Museum of Art last year. The Wall Street Journal ran a rave review and later selected the show for its year’s best roundup along with exhibits by Picasso, Degas, Kandinsky and de Kooning. In fact, Dial was the only living artist included.
In Time magazine, critic Richard Lacayo wrote a four-page ode that concluded, “Art is a word so contaminated these days by hype, misunderstanding and sales talk, it’s tempting sometimes to think we should try doing without it. Until you remember that it’s the one word spacious enough to contain what Dial does.”
Reporting from Bessemer, the Alabama industrial town outside Birmingham that has been Dial’s base since he was a teen, The New York Times mused that the self-taught artist’s “marginalization” by the contemporary art establishment “may not last much longer.”
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a folk art collector and friend of Dial’s for several decades, sounded a similar note after touring “Hard Truths” at Charlotte’s Mint Museum during the Democratic convention.
“Some people call it outsider art, but I think it should be included in ‘inside art,’ not just outside,” said Lewis, whose civil rights activism was commemorated by Dial in a public art work spanning 42 feet. “The Bridge” was dedicated in 2005 in Freedom Park off Ponce de Leon Avenue.
Now 84, Dial himself represents a bridge to another time, another South, another kind of art-making.