At a Passover Seder three years ago, at the home of Atlanta gallerist Fay Gold, I was introduced to the art historian Bill Arnett. I said something (in my direct New Yorker-ese) like, “Oh you’re the guy who brought attention to the quilts of Gees Bend, which put every white, male, Euro-centric, geometric abstractionist to shame”; to which Arnett said, in his John Grisham-like cadence, “You’re the fella that’s going to save my life.”
The story of Bill Arnett is a great American novel yet to be written and a major film waiting to be produced, and no, I never did save his life, but Arnett’s introducing me to Thornton Dial and Southern Vernacular art would come to change the way I viewed art and art history forever.
The exhibition Outside/In is a scaled-down vision of a greater exhibition that I had talked about with Arnett, that would pair so called “outsider” and “Folk artists” (the latter is a term that I find racially biased) with traditionally-educated, “mainstream” artists. The show would ask questions about how the art world sets up hierarchies based on race, gender and class to support market-driven hegemonies.
To classify Thornton Dial as uneducated and somehow “less than“ is to support the Great American Lie of racism.
While it is true Mr. Dial never learned to read or write, nor did he experience formal art school training, his education was undeniably rigorous and arguably more intense. He spent many years as a welder at the Pullman Company, which enabled him to achieve technical welding skills only rivaled by the 20th Century Modernist masters David Smith and Anthony Caro.
If you are ever able to spend time in the Arnett warehouse in Atlanta and study the impossibly brilliant welding techniques found in the Dial masterpieces such as Lost Cows or Old Water, among others, this notion of “uneducated” will forever be disabused.
I was fortunate to spend some time with Mr. Dial in his studio in Bessemer, Alabama, and one of my fondest memories was the hour we shared looking through a book on Anselm Kiefer that I brought to him. He looked through the book and we discussed the work, its themes, the materials Kiefer had used and the commonalities between Kiefer’s work and his own. He looked at me and said, “Imagine him all the way in Germany and me here in Bessemer working on the same things”. He knew and felt the connection both implicitly and explicitly.
The heartbeat, genesis and theme of this exhibition is based around sixteen of Dial’s early masterworks on paper, created during the ONLY time Mr. Dial responded directly, through his art, to the press’ criticism of him as “untrained“, an “unskilled” draftsman, and to his marginalization by the mainstream art world.
There is a currency in so much of the post-Post-Modernist work I see being made now that parallels “vernacular art.” In “Meta-Modern” practice there is extension and deconstruction of formalism, which blurs lines between abstraction and figuration, and employs the use of non-traditional with traditional painting materials, which is found in much of Vernacular art. While these aforementioned evidences are obvious, it seems to me the search for a deep personal meaning, regardless of art–world classification, is the soul of this commonality.
Whether it’s in Chris Martin’s use of glitter, automatic writing and direct physical handling, Joan Snyder’s mastery of mixed media, assemblage and deeply personal iconography, Katherine Bradford’s reimaging of pop culture iconography coupled with the use of discarded materials or Fred Valentine’s obsessive drawings, the parallels to Dial, Darger, and Castle are obvious and profound in the shared search for a deep, personal connection to content that is outside of any one strict Modernist lexicon.
While Post-Modernism became its own contradictory, self-fulfilling (market driven) prophecy that unfortunately came to exclude and marginalize many forms of expression that did not support its strict and restrictive voice, it did forever, in spite of itself, shatter the thinking that art followed a direct, predictable lineage, say; from Cubism, to Constructivism, to Dada, to Surrealism, to ABEX, to Pop, to Minimalism, to Conceptual to the next big “ISM”. And Post-Modernism ultimately did begin to allow for a more inclusive and greater range of voices (women, African-American, LGBT), and a more global view of who makes important art and where and how that art comes from and into being.
This “shattering” of modernism allowed artists a greater freedom in making their work and the viewer a greater and more inclusive understanding of the possibilities for human expression.
A re-examining of the artificial classifications of what is “outsider” and “insider” and fresh eyes on the work without prejudice, will help us to learn more about ourselves and what creates deep and shared meaning in our lives.