Review: Thornton Dial at NOMA_lowres


"I mostly pick up stuff," says Thornton Dial when asked about his creative process. "Then I look at it and think about life." In his early 80s, the former Pullman railroad car fabricator has had a lot of time to think, but his sculptural works are not "naive" and his illiteracy has not limited his outlook. His complex wall assemblages may have parallels with the canvases of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, but his vision may ultimately be closer to the weird nexus of pop and expressionism shared by fellow Southerners Robert Rauschenberg and Red Grooms. Dial's convoluted, 10-foot-wide Don't Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together suggests a fateful encounter between Old Glory and a mulch machine, but its colorful anarchy of mattress springs, chicken wire and fabric is more elegiac than nihilistic, conveying a sense of tattered resilience in the face of the stresses that have long challenged American life. High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man) features Mickey Mouse in blackface chained to a boatlike construction amid a mix of goat hides and wire suggesting a slave ship, but beyond the irony is a sharp sense of intrigue that seduces the eye and boggles the mind with its startling evocation of cruel wonder. Victory in Iraq melds mannequin and animal parts, wheels and barbed wire into an eloquent melange, as if the viscera of the world had been ripped out for all to see, but Trophies (Doll Factory) (pictured) is a whimsical take on the feminine persona in pop media with Barbie dolls, plastic toys and rope in a visual razzmatazz that gives de Kooning a run for his money. Stand-alone sculptures like Lost Cows, a concoction of cow bones, mirrors and golf bags, can be extraordinary and, all things considered, the case can be made that Dial may well be the most forcefully eloquent American sculptor to emerge in the last quarter century, if not longer. — D. Eric Bookhardt