Thornton Dial's 'Thoughts on Paper' Sheds Light on the Artist's More Familiar Work

Octogenarian Thornton Dial's exhibition Thoughts on Paper, on view at the Knoxville Museum of Art through Aug. 25, includes more than 50 images of women with birds, fish, and tigers. Recognized for his often massive assemblages made from found materials, Dial has, as demonstrated by the current show, chosen a very different direction for his works on paper—compositions rendered mostly in watercolor and teeming with personally significant yet decidedly symbolic creatures.

Organized by the University of North Carolina's Ackland Art Museum, Thoughts on Paper presents an accomplished and distinctive collection of pieces that provide insight into Dial's better-known work. The show also reveals how the African-American artist's exuberant, sizeable paintings utilize limited but flexible media. Dial frequently tempers bold line with semi-transparent washes, as in "Lady Holds on to the Love Bird" and "Two Ladies With a Big Fish." Pencil and charcoal, then, are as indispensable to Dial's graphically strong subject matter as pigment.

Upon entering either ground-level gallery at KMA, viewers will likely be most struck by the energy of Dial's pieces presented en masse. That energy, both tense and exciting, is especially evident in the artist's renditions of tigers, the male counterpart to his omnipresent women. In Dial's bestiary, the tiger's sinuous presence alternately represents cunning, virility, playfulness, ferocity, and vulnerability.

Clearly, Dial has proven his gift for creating art in two dimensions. Which is what he was determined to do in 1990, after his first show was reviewed as being "ugly" and indicative of an inability to draw.

Well, Dial can draw. And a debt of gratitude is owed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's nasty critic, who inspired him to start producing the early '90s pieces now on display.

Whatever the initial impetus for Thoughts on Paper, the show addresses gender roles, sexuality, and the cycle of life, whereas Dial's larger works are more concerned with race, subjugation, and political power. But no matter how daring, expressive, or masterful Dial's efforts are, he has faced several challenges on his way to becoming accepted as a serious contemporary artist.

As a self-taught black artist from Alabama, Dial has predictably been called an "outsider artist"—an offensive designation that defines him as not only unschooled, but undeserving of "insider" status. African Americans in our culture are too often seen as outsiders, whether artists or not—falsely charged with being foreign-born or suspect. The label arguably denies the legitimacy of art made by those less privileged when it comes to economic position and access to education. It also discounts Dial's extensive experience in industrial drawing while working at a Pullman Factory in Birmingham.

Not long after the aforementioned negative review, a 1993 60 Minutes program coinciding with his first showing in New York questioned Dial's talent and challenged his art's proposed market value. At another point, when Dial's art-world-savvy friend William Arnett gave him a passel of traditional supplies to experiment with, Dial came to be regarded as no longer capable of producing authentic pieces. Adding insult to injury, Arnett was purportedly declared exploitive. All of which seems absurd when we think about intention versus realization, or see Thoughts on Paper and applaud Arnett's ardent support.

It's easy to toss out the names of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marc Chagall when describing Dial's works on paper. Yet those artists come to mind for reasons having to do with confidence and directness as well as the approaches they adopted while exploring universal themes related to male/female relationships. Dial's art also connects with the "action painting" central to Abstract Expressionism and Jackson Pollock's work, in particular. Through gesture, he conveys dynamic movement, capturing his own physicality at a specific moment in time, just as the birds perched on heads or held in the arms of fertile women in "Life Go On" or "Lady Holds the Peace Bird" are essentially captive.

Dial's women are many things other than nurturers; they are powerful protectors, seductresses, and fishers of men, as well as stabilizing domestic beings. Bernard L. Herman, a professor of American studies at UNC, has referred to the artist's use of the series title "Fishing for Love" as involving more than feminine behavior, however. Biblical significance aside, Herman asserts that the fish in Dial's works on paper allude to survival and the drive to provide for one's family. Yet through their sweeping and vital presence, the fish in Dial's art reflect the art they inform: forever in colorful motion, much like life itself.