Friday, April 6, 2012

From Folk Art to Abstract Expressionism

Controversy or age does not phase down Thornton Dial who is back on the museums tour. His latest exhibition takes place at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

The artist's message is punchy. The first room, somber with darker works like "The Last Day of Martin Luther King", 1992 or bright screaming yellow and red like "Blood and Meat. Survival of the World", 1992, gives the flavor of the exhibition. Several works are directly related to African American history, among them "High and Wide ( Carrying the Rats to the Man)", 2002 and "Green Pastures: The Birds That Didn't Learn How to Fly", 2008, sober but equally powerful. The giant canvasses, covered with thick paint and material found around the farm: carpets, goat hides, metal barbed wire, ropes, old cars parts...whether related to Dial's experience on the farm like "Billy Goat Hill" 2000 or current events like Martin Luther King's death are telling vivid stories.

A few sculptures appear to be the result of an adventure with the material and have little aesthetic qualities.

Overall, the works are engaged, inspired by events or controversial subjects. The artist is not afraid to tackle women's rights with "Trophies (Doll Factory)", 2000. Derision, tragedy, humor, political or simple emotions, the artist's scope of language is wide. The message appears less genuine in some of the later works like "Driving to the End of the World", 2004, a series of five works related to the global oil crisis, geopolitics of the middle East and the fate of the world ecology, according to the comments next to the works. Let's not forget, the artist is illiterate.

References like "Expressionist brush stroke of color filled with rich allegories" are overreaching and distract the visitor. The artist has been compared to Pollock, Rauschenberg, Basquiat... The first two artists were prominent in the 40's and 50's and the comparison with Basquiat's works is a stretch.

What should be emphasized is the artist's drive, his energy translated in these magisterial compositions and his uniqueness. His primal and universal message sinks under the pseudo-intellectual comments delivered to the visitor.
Thornton Dial can see shapes, colors and transcend objects and surroundings. He is inhabited by his heritage, driven by some ancestral, universal creativity which he transcribes with little intellectual input which makes it so powerful.The documentary "Mr Dial has Something to Say" is about the rehabilitation of Mr. Arnett, the collector who brought Thornton Dial and others, from Alabama to the world. The recuperation of the artist's work for political or financial purposes is shameless is a wicked world. Thornton Dial appears witty, full of humor and common sense with a dose of skepticism.

To reassure the art world, his works have to be labelled: not folk art or abstract expressionism, I would chose the term coined by the French artist Jean Dubuffet, " art brut or raw art".

photographs by the author
"High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man), 2002
"Construction of the Victory", 1997

No comments: