In one of Dial’s very last tiger pieces from 1998, he tells his own story of police brutality, when a trip home from work turned into a nightmare. It was the 1950s and a Dial, then a young family man in his twenties, was driving home from work one rainy evening when his car stalled on the street. While he was awaiting assistance with his vehicle, two policemen ambushed him and beat him nearly to the point of unconsciousness. Even now, decades later, Dial is incredulous. “I thought that I had help until they said, ‘You’re under arrest,’ and started to beat me up. The police are supposed to help you, but they beat me bad. . . . I thought they was going to kill me.”
It is no accident that the contrasting stripes of Dial’s infamous tiger cat mimic the pattern of a prison suit, an allusion to the frequent criminalization of black men. In this particular rendering, the artist’s tiger—striped self-portrait tumbles about the canvas—a swirling mass of paint, fabric scraps, fury, and fragmented will—as he wrestles not only with the blows directed at him but also with his own sense of confusion and horror. The piece captures the insanity and disequilibrium of life in the upside-down world of racial violence. Its title is Joe Louis, a tongue-in-cheek reference to having been “knocked out” by the police, and to the vernacular name for a kind of “hard times” Whiskey that will, like the officers of the law, “knock you out quick.” Framing the work are bottles, including empty liquor bottles, a double signifier for having become devoid of spirit.
In many ways, Joe Louis serves as a kind of elegy for Dial’s tiger persona. Here, Dial himself is depicted as a defeated character with mummy—like features formed from strips of cloth, ragged bandages on a bruised body and battered soul. The bold stripes that once deﬁned his cat image have become the faded color bands on a shabby old sweater. Emerging from the chaos that surrounds the figure are glimpses of real jungle cats, but these creatures are no longer the “proud-stepping” agents of social change. Mere phantoms of their former selves, they are nearly indistinguishable from the inchoate ﬁeld of imitation animal print fabrics, tiger-striped and leopard-spotted, into which they are vanishing. At this moment in Dial’s Work, the tiger cat has already disappeared from most of his canvases. A symbol for the artist’s now obsolete belief in a simple linear notion of progress, it has become, when it appears at all, a tiny and nearly invisible cipher from the past. —Joanne Cubbs