Dial's Roller-Coaster World
In this work Dial turns his focus on himself and the challenges of his own artistic career. Appropriately entitled Dial’s Roller-Coaster World, the assemblage includes many symbols of the unexpected and precipitous ups and downs of Dial’s life. Mounted at the very top of the piece are a number of brightly painted cable spools, abstracted images of roller-coaster cars that careen along a curved track made of metal strips and rope. Appearing below the track are other symbols of Dial’s unpredictable journey—a large black kite with the potential to sail high or suddenly dive to the ground; a double row of houses, one high and the other low, to signify Dial’s changing economic fortunes; and streams of tattered cloth that, for Dial, evoke the historical plight of black people and also call to mind the capricious nature of the familiar rags-to-riches tale.
Using the metaphor of the roller coaster, Dial comments upon the uneven course of his artistic career. And just like the comic framework of Lonnie Holley’s Vision Land, he locates his musings on the realities of being a black vernacular artist within the absurdist context of an amusement park. To underscore the union of comic and tragic sentiments, Dial further includes the figure of a ragged toy clown within his assemblage. Hung from the piece’s scaffolding, as if lynched, the incongruous circus character evokes the same eerie feeling of disjunction that Dial effected by introducing a crucifixion amidst the frivolity of spinning Ferris wheels in Vision Land.
On one level, the hanging clown figure in Dial’s Roller-Coaster World is much like a prize won in games of chance at a theme park. It may also be read as a satirical symbol for Dial’s predicament as an artist, a reference to the minstrel-like way in which he has been forced to “play the fool” within the media and to the fact that, as a self-taught maker, his art has not always been taken seriously. But Dial’s use of the comic conjures even more complex meanings. While much of his work depicts the racist devastation brutally wreaked on African American hopes and dreams, his paintings and sculptures also serve as parables on the nature of human folly itself. In this sense, Dial’s clown mirrors back to us a refection of our own inherent absurdity, the foolishness of a world that cannot end its divisiveness and conflict, even as such actions foreshadow its own demise. Simply put, Dial’s clown is us.
In still another way, Dial’s clown image signals his own recurring identification with the metaphysical role of the trickster, a character who, like the joker in a card game, can become anyone, do anything, and forever change the course of life itself. It is the trickster who reminds us that reality is not fixed and permanent, but open and changeable. And it is the trickster’s nonsense tactics of deception, buffoonery, and incongruity that inspire us to transgress the boundaries of our limited, everyday perceptions and open the door to fresh, unexpected possibilities.
Similarly, Dial’s clown, and the raucous setting of his roller-coaster world, persuades us to transcend the certainty of our past beliefs, to recognize our shared absurdity, and to conceive new understandings of both ourselves and others. By evoking the comic wisdom of the trickster, Dial’s art encourages a reconsideration of our common humanity that collapses the rigid distinctions between race and class, and that erases the color lines and social hierarchies which have historically separated us.
Yet despite the trickster’s efforts to free us from old and divisive epistemologies, a change in the racial contract is not likely to occur so easily. Dial appreciates this fact, and while struggling to change the world, he also accepts its tyranny and imperfection with a profound sense of resignation. For finally the state of the world must be known and conceded before it can be truly transformed; a sense of resignation toward the world is the first step in the process of its fundamental reconception or re-signing. Far from a state of surrender, Dial’s resignation might better be described as his armor and sword, his awareness of, and patience with, the flawed nature of humanity and its limited potential for social change. One might also say that Dial is a man who knows how to ride the roller coaster, to patiently accept both the highs and lows of life and to recognize that the shifting balances of social power are part of a much larger historical process.
Referring back to his experience with 60 Minutes, Dial talks about his way of accepting adversity with a patience and perseverance that inspires both his art and its transformational politics:
“Seems like when a black man about to get up in the world they think he got to be knocked down. . . . That’s done been happening ever since I been old enough to understand the works. But you see, we keep on going. We just going to survive and watch for the change to come. I just had them big museum shows in New York, and I was happy to see how all the peoples seem to appreciate my art—“Mr. Dial, you going to get big-time respect from this day on.” Then one or two days after, 60 Minutes run that thing on TV, and that put an end to the celebration. But you know, they can lie about Negroes. They can slow down Negro progress, but they ain’t never been able to keep us off the road. They think we just going to stop, but if you watch the struggle of black people in the United States, you learn that we got patience.”