Artist Thornton Dial confronts the Hard Truths

Alabama artist’s high-profile retrospective opens at the High Museum

All truth is hard truth.

That’s the word from Alabama artist Thornton Dial, whose current exhibit at the High Museum, Hard Truths, represents the largest retrospective of his work ever assembled. Dial, now 85, has endured rural poverty, a life of manual labor, the segregated South, and, in recent years, the death of his wife, hernia surgery, pneumonia, a stroke, and heart problems. Now using a wheelchair but still making art every day, Dial is patient with questions, but speaks little about his work. “Ain’t no need for me to tell you too much about it,” he says modestly.

The self-taught and illiterate Dial has often been classified as a “folk” or “outsider” artist, especially when he first started to gain national attention in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But the work resists such simple classification. His canvases and sculptural assemblages are richly layered with paint and found objects, such as tree branches, metal, clothing, paint, dolls, broom heads, ironing boards, barbed wire, and twisted fencing. The artwork takes on monumental questions of identity, American history, contemporary politics, power, oppression, the individual, and the natural world. His textured visual language demands prolonged or repeated attention to appreciate its astounding complexity.

“One of the interesting things abut this exhibition is that from the very beginning, we didn’t talk about Dial as a folk, self-taught, or even as an African-American artist,” says Joanne Cubbs, curator of the show, which arrives in Atlanta after enormously successful runs in Indianapolis, Charlotte, and New Orleans “We talked about him as a contemporary artist or an American artist. It’s where the world will end up, but it’s where Mr. Dial has always been.”

The show and Dial have been the subject of major profiles in the New York Times, Time, and the Wall Street Journal, with many prominent art critics proclaiming the exhibition one of the most significant shows in years, and placing it alongside blockbuster exhibits of Degas and Kandinsky in their annual top 10 lists. “We went from starting at about 10 miles an hour to about 100 miles an hour in no time,” says Cubbs of the sudden flurry of national attention.

When asked about the title of his exhibition, Dial says, “Well, life is hard. You know it’s the truth. Things have been rough for Negroes. It ain’t nothing easy now.” And then, indicating the more than 20 years of work in the gallery around him, he adds, “None of this stuff you see down in here was easy ... Anything you go do — I don’t care if it’s just building a house — it’s hard. You just start. You have to do it because life is hard ... When you finish something, that’s when the enjoyment comes. You look at something and say, ‘That’s a nice piece.’ You always know it when you’re finished because you were working for that.”