Sunday, March 6, 2011

Outwitting Oppressors

"High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man," Thornton Dial

Richard Lacayo has written a brilliant article about the "Thornton Dial:  Hard Truths" exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  Read it yesterday and was completely inspired.  You can't access it on Time's website (just a teaser that tells you to go out and buy the magazine to read the whole thing),  but there is a great photo gallery with information on the site:  Thornton Dial in Time.

Here are some quotes from Lacayo's smart, concise, and on-point piece about an artist whose work can't be pigeonholed, even though his bio (African American, non-credentialed, illiterate, etc.)  would seem to dictate that status from most arts writers. 

Thank you Richard Lacayo...

The introductory paragraph masterfully sets up the case, without using the word "outsider" once: 

"American artists don't have to be licensed -- a good thing, that -- but they do tend to be credentialed.  The art world is bristling with degrees from Yale and Cal Arts and hundreds of other academies.  In that world, Thornton Dial stands out.  He has no formal training and very little schooling of any kind.  To be blunt, he can't read or write.  But sometime during his long years as a metalworker in Alabama, he turned to making what he at first simply called "things," because it would be a long time before he, or anybody else, realized that those things are better described as art.  And not just that, but some of the most assured, delightful and powerful art around."

Lacayo also surveys the meaning, purpose and history of assemblage in modern art, mentioning high-art touchstones like Schwitters, Picasso, Braque, Nevelson, Twombley, and finally Rauschenberg, in order to not just contextualize Dial's personal history, but to give his work a place in the artworld outside of biography and "outsiderness."  He also finds a way to do exactly what I always want writers about unconventional artists to do:  he places Rauschenberg directly beside Dial, and finds a way to unite their works through what inspires them:

"Just like Dial, Rauschenberg, who grew up in the largely black town of Port Arthur, Texas, was influenced by the 'yardshow' assemblages he saw as a boy.  The memory banks of small-town African America, yardshows were pieced together from things discarded without losing their residue of personal history, the kind from which the larger varieties of history are built."

And toward the end of the essay, again using art history and world history to invert the way people locate and relegate artists and art, Lacayo finds a way to champion Dial as a contemporary artist worthy of art-historization, without losing the authenticity and grit of what Dial is trying to accomplish:

"When Dial is at his best, he even manages to inject new life into one of the most cliched images of postwar art.  Mickey Mouse, who usually gets dragged into service as a symbol of the trivial strain in American culture, does much more complicated double duty in High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man).  A stuffed Mickey doll, the white portions of its face smeared in black, hangs in chains in the midst of a wire-and-rod construction meant to signify a slave ship with goat-hide sails.  With one compact gesture, Dial invokes the atrocity of the Atlantic slave trade and the minstrel-show culture the descendants of those slaves adopted to entertain and outwit oppressors.  It would all be funny if the laughs didn't come so hard....  In a piece like that, Dial claims a place within the line of history painters stretching back to the 18th and 19th centuries.  He doesn't try to call on their visual language -- who would anymore? -- but at the same time, there's very little in his work you could call folkloric."

Damn.  That's it.