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Artist Thornton Dial once said of his process, “I like to use the stuff that I know about, stuff that I know the feel of.”1 That stuff included the likes of tin, copper, aluminum, steel, wood, wire, and toys, which all got layered into his assemblages like flies set in amber. These found objects were the trappings of his everyday life—born on a former cotton plantation to a family of sharecroppers, Dial spent 30 years as a metalworker at the Pullman Standard Plant in Bessemer, Alabama.2 Dial’s assemblages, drawings, and paintings tell the story of his lived experience as much as they do the broader history of Black people in the American South.
Handwriting on the Wall at Blum & Poe is the culmination of 28 years of artmaking and storytelling and marks the first major Los Angeles presentation of the late artist’s work (Dial died in 2016). Through Dial’s incisive mark-making, the exhibition ruminates on cultural inequalities that both predate the artist’s life and persist beyond it, touching on the history of slavery, the election of the nation’s first Black president, the Southern Black church, mortality, and other subject matter both universal and personal. In this way, it highlights Dial’s enduring interest in relationships between individuals across gender, class, and race (and even species)—especially during social movements, which he used to track the progress of culture in the United States and mark the turning points of his own life.
The exhibition begins with the assemblages made near the end of Dial’s life and moves back in time until viewers are figuratively transported to the cornfield where he was born. Garden of Eden (2015) was painted in Dial’s final year of life and has never before been publicly exhibited. A strip of fabric, enamel, canvas, and wood has been spray-painted with swirls of pale purple, yellow, and gray. As the title suggests, the piece is a meditation on mortality (à la Adam and Eve) and while abstract, the only detectable objects are a group of leafy branches that are layered on the canvas, perhaps as a nod to the Tree of Knowledge. Later in the show, viewers encounter earlier works like Running with the Mule, Running for Freedom (1990), which reflected on the second Selma March. A whirlpool of color and protracted movements swim about the canvas, but what stands out are the rust-hued limbs that rest on all fours and stretch long like taffy. There are also at least four sets of eyes present and insinuations of animal features alongside human ones. Here, a Black man rides a mule as others watch on suspiciously, but Dial sometimes depicted his Black subjects as animals, often using a mule with human features as a symbol of labor and, more specifically, Black oppression. In the same vein, he used tigers as a shorthand for Black tenacity, and birds, unsurprisingly, as symbols of Black freedom—or lack thereof.
It’s difficult not to see the varied materials in Dial’s assemblages, like those in Hot and Cold (Life in the Rolling Mill) (1995–96)—a toy tractor, the mustachioed man who resembles Dial himself, the lipsticked face floating opposite, and the precious scraps from factories and barnyards alike—as the rich tapestry of a full life. More specifically, the full life of a conscientious witness, who borrowed from the oral tradition and documented history through his art for posterity. As viewers continue on through the galleries, delving deeper into the origins of Dial’s language of symbolism along the way, they get to witness just that.
Thornton Dial: Handwriting on the Wall runs from April 29–June 10, 2023 at Blum & Poe (2727 S. La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90034).