In a perfect world, art would be judged solely on its merits. But the world is a messy place, and arts place in that mess is complicated by politics that can make a clique of mean girls look like a Quaker meeting.
Which brings us to Thornton Dial, whose work is featured in an important exhibition now at the Mint Museum Uptown.
Dial is known for huge mixed media paintings and sculptures that address an array of social ills. After a childhood spent as a farm laborer, he worked at a number of skilled trades, eventually becoming a metalworker at the Pullman Standard Rail Car Manufacturing Co. Although illiterate, Dial brings a keen social awareness, abundant skills, and a sense of irony to his work. Discovered in the late 1980s, Dial, now 82, has been compared to Robert Rauschenberg, Anselm Kiefer and other internationally known artists.
As his star was rising, Dial suffered a setback: during a 1993 60 Minutes interview, a patronizing Morley Safer implied that the soft-spoken Dial was bumbling and unaware, and that he was being manipulated by William Arnett, the collector who has long championed him and other self-taught African-American artists.
The fallout was dramatic. Museums canceled exhibitions and acquisitions. But Dials reputation was gradually rehabilitated, and now he is being celebrated with Hard Truths, a retrospective of more than 50 large-scale works, organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, that is in the midst of a four-city tour.
These powerful works are made from a bedraggled collection of salvaged objects and scraps, which are then covered in viscerally applied paint. Most are wall-mounted pieces that erase the boundaries between painting and sculpture. They address large issues racism, war, poverty, loss of tradition and personal ones the death of Dials wife, the destruction of his neighborhood in a flood, the loss of his farm animals.
The first piece in the show, Dont Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together, establishes the mood. A burst of rags, bedsprings, scrap metal, raw cotton, and other debris covered in red, white and blue paint, it reveals a mix of patriotism and skepticism.
A number of works are about heroes and martyrs. In Blood and Meat: Survival for the World, a tangle of vein-like ropes is superimposed on a painted surface of agonized faces, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy; there is a barely discernable crucifix at the center. At first glance, The Last Day of Martin Luther King looks like an abstraction of animal stripes, but further viewing reveals a tiger, a traditional symbol that in this work represents Dr. King.
Dials symbols can change in meaning from work to work. In Looking Good for the Price, inspired in equal parts by the degrading 60 Minutes encounter and a relatives observations about the slave trade, the tiger is a symbol of both Dials personal experience and the larger struggle of African Americans.
Strange Fruit, Channel 42, titled after the famed Billie Holliday song, is another commentary on the 60 Minutes debacle; here, an effigy of Dial hangs from a TV antenna.
Explicitly about the slave trade, High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man) is dominated by metal scraps that resemble the twisted remains of a wrecked car. At the center is a chained Mickey Mouse in blackface. The wry wit of this piece may make some viewers squirm.
Dials farm and factory experience is reflected in works that skewer romanticized ideas about rural purity and urban progress. Mercedes Comes to Alabama is filled with mordant humor, as figures made from skulls and rags engage in a death-grip struggle over a steering wheel.
The dusty gray Lost Farm (Billy Goat Hill) is an outstanding example of Dials gift for controlled chaos. Eulogizing a past era, it includes genteel remnants of country life such as a peach basket, ironing board, and farm tools, as well as actual dried animals a rat, a goat and a turkey.
The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle incorporates both industrial castoffs and more tender objects, such as a turtle shell and artificial flowers. Painted a shimmering orange-yellow, it is surprisingly ethereal. Vibrant both visually and emotionally, it is perhaps the single most life-affirming work in the show.
Thornton Dials art brims with raw beauty and sharp commentary. Hard Truths may not be easy on the eyes or the soul, but it is an invigorating and provocative show.