Dial World, Part I: The Tiger That Flew over New York City welcomes viewers with the titular painting from 1990, hung in the lobby of David Lewis. Inspired by his first trip to NYC from Alabama, Thornton Dial centers tall, white skyscrapers, towering above brown tenement houses that house the working-classes. Flying over the scene is a white tiger with black marks, a symbol for Dial himself, gliding over the city like an airplane-esque wild cat. Rife with allusions to strength, movement, and the wilderness, the tiger is a guiding motif throughout the exhibit.
The exhibition displays seven other mixed media paintings, all created between 1993 and 2011, featuring materials such as fabric, enamel, spray paint, twine, and in one work, an animal jawbone. For “In the Making of Our Oldest Things” (2009), Dial gathered floral-patterned fabric and primary colored enamel on a wooden panel, forming a work that recalls abstract expressionism. All of the paintings are deeply textured — imbuing the paintings with sculptural qualities and revealing Dial’s process of layering materials on his canvases.
Embodiment, possibly of a tiger, is alluded to in “Meat” (2003) and “Bone Dry” (2011). The former signals the fleshiness of a living being —- either human or non-human —- with carnal pinks and reds, while the latter contains criss-crossed wooden slabs on the canvas, and the aforementioned jawbone. Both works utilize richly colored and energetic brushstrokes and designs, gesturing towards Dial’s experimentation with representing a tiger. “All the Cats in Town” (1993), on the other hand, emphasizes the body; four abstracted wild cats are entangled on the canvas. Painted in vibrant colors, the “cats” nod to jazz slang, adding a musical element to the rhythmic brushstrokes.
Traditional art history often categorizes artists like Dial as self-taught, outsider, folk, and vernacular. Carrying the vestiges of the outdated “primitive,” these identificatory terms inadequately capture the aesthetic significance of Black artists from the US South. Dial’s artistic process is bricolage, evidenced through his practice of assemblage with a vast array of found materials. To be a bricoleur, working in assemblage, is to be rooted in a Southern African-American aesthetic practice, though a rich tradition of this work also emerged in California in the 1950s.
With very little didactic material, the exhibition emphasizes the form and materiality of the paintings more so than any context that surrounds them. Whether this focus encourages viewers to further consider or ultimately ignore the rich history of African-American assemblage, and Thornton’s role in it, is debatable. At times, the show does feel like a missed opportunity to engage the particular contributions of Black Southerners to contemporary art.
Dial, who died in 2016, did not achieve international acclaim for his artwork until later in life, despite having been raised in a community surrounded by artists, most notably the Gee’s Bend quilters. Still, the art world has been slow to reckon with the skilled contributions of these artists in the global canon of abstraction.
Dial World, Part II: Stars of Everything, now on view at the gallery’s new location on 12th street, seeks to remedy this exclusion by placing Dial at the center of a curatorial dialogue on assemblage and abstraction. The exhibition includes works by Pope. L, Robert Rauschenberg, Myrlande Constant, and several others working with shared formal strategies in disparate cultural contexts. Taken together, the shows offer an exciting, if selective, opportunity to gauge Dial’s formal impact. Hopefully they won’t be the last to explore his rich artistic world.
Dial World, Parts I and II continue through December 20 at David Lewis (88 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan and West 12th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan, respectively).
Special Edition: 🖌️Artists’ Signatures ✍️
In this special edition, we investigate what artists’ signatures actually mean, and the fascinating results reveal the multifaceted history of this curious phenomenon.
What Is a Signature in the Internet Age?
As a cryptographic unit for record-keeping, an NFT can be seen as analogous to a signature or an autograph.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
The Meaning of Ancient Greek and Roman Artisan Signatures
What did a signature mean in the ancient world, and how much can we trust what they seem to tell us?
Michelangelo’s Signature and the Myth of Genius
Michelangelo served as a stellar example for future artists who sought status and economic independence.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
Uncovering the Photographer Behind Arshile Gorky’s Most Famous Painting
As we pursue photographer Hovhannes Avedaghayan a fascinating picture begins to emerge of him and the world of which he was part.
100 Years of Artist Signatures in a Detroit Club
The beams in Detroit’s Scarab Club act as a guest book of sorts, carrying a wealth of stories and history, including signatures by Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Margaret Bourke-White, Isamu Noguchi, and others.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
The Myth of Agency Around Artists’ Signatures
In an art world built on shifting sands, artists’ signatures become symbols of agency for some, and relics of the past for others.
The Women Artists Commemorated on an NYC Sidewalk
The signatures of Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, and six other historical women artists are engraved on a small stretch of sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Met Museum Repatriates 15 Objects to India
The sculptures were all at one point sold by the disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor.
Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Placed on Russian “Wanted” List
Tolokonnikova has long been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin’s regime.