Physical Acts: Thornton Dial and Reclamation
Growing up in rural Missouri, I wasn’t exposed to much art. So when, at 19, I visited Monet’s Water Lily Gallery in Paris’s Musée de l'Orangerie, I was literally moved to tears by the sheer beauty of Monet’s paintings as they curved around the gallery he had specially designed. From that moment on, I realized art – visual, literary, or musical – is physical. Before the intellect kicks in and starts theorizing, historicizing, and contextualizing, the body reacts. To paraphrase the oft-used Emily Dickinson quote, one feels as if your head has been taken off – leaving only the body to appreciate the work. .
For me, it is often this initial reaction that forms my strongest and most lasting impression of a work of art. And since, my first such experience was with Monet’s Water Lilies it has become, for better or worse and even though they are no longer my favorite works of art, the benchmark by which I judge my reaction to other visual art. Few works have reached that level, but the work of self-taught African-American artist Thornton Dial has.
That long preamble was basically to say Dial’s current show at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston blew me away.
Using a vast array of found objects, from carpet scraps to two-litter soda bottles, from cattle bones to car parts, Dial creates large-scale two- and three-dimensional works that transform the debris of history into explorations of post-9/11 America, race, nature, and life. But what struck me first was the physicality of the work. In The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle transcends the quieter color-fields of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, by arranging plastic soda bottles, dolls, pieces of clothing, wire, found metal, gloves, and plastic flowers on a large canvas and then painting everything yellow, invoking a three-dimensional color field alive with a sense of movement and chaos.
While In The Beginning... celebrates birth, Dial’s Lost Farm (Billy Goat Hill) emanates a sense of death and loss by assembling a gray field of desiccated animal carcasses, old shoes, tire scraps, and pieces of farm tools.
Though Dial’s visionary (in the sense of Blake) approach to color and objects transfigures the various components into a new whole, Dial constantly reminds the viewer of the objects origins as the scraps, the detritus, of society, generating a tension between an almost spiritual beauty and its mundane, ugly origins.
Thinking of Dial’s work I can’t help but think of Google-sculpted poetry such as flarf. While Dial searches fields and farms for cast-off junk, the poet clicks around the internet gathering cast-off phrases to reassemble into a new construct. Though Dial draws more from the industrial age and the poets more from the information age, there are similar impulses at work: attempts to reclaim, to reshape, to reconstruct society’s debris. Found objects/found phrases “pouring through the vernacular” (Drew Gardner, Petroleum Hat).
But Dial’s work unlike poetry has space and literal physicality. His work’s physical presence draws the viewer corporally into Dial’s vision(s). You become one of the found objects reclaimed from society’s trash heap. Dial transmutes objects and viewer creating a moment, a space, that might also transform, even if just briefly, society.