at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and The Arts Company
by Kevin Gordon
Thornton Dial and the quilters of Gee’s Bend are the principal representatives of a long-hidden culture of African-American art, that in the last few decades has just begun to be exposed, documented, and understood as an important part of the art-historical canon. Through numerous recent exhibitions such as the current show at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts (Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial), this work is finally being given overdue attention and respect from a mainstream art world that has been slow in accepting that which is created beyond its political or aesthetic influence. On July 7, Great American Art: Thornton Dial and the Gee’s Bend Quilters opens at the Arts Company (215 5th Avenue N.) and features a selection of early two-dimensional work from Mr. Dial and new quilts and etchings by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. An excellent complement to the Frist exhibition, the Arts Company show expands the viewer’s knowledge of the chronological progress of these artists’ works with thoughtful selections.
“Dial does make a special pleading for the African-American people, but it is always wound into or signifies about the whole people . . . so that Dial invariably makes his sharpest thematic statements about the doubly and triply oppressed, but resonates about all exploitation, all oppression.” – Amiri Baraka
I first met Thornton Dial in April of 1998. He was attending the opening of his first show in Nashville, at the Arts Company; damage from the recent tornado was still evident in tall mirrored walls of office buildings around us, now pocked with jagged holes from wind-shattered glass. We were introduced on the sidewalk, in front of the gallery there on 5th Avenue. I must have been nervous, babbling about some minor domestic crisis, being then married with a one-year-old child and another due that fall, trying to provide for them via the unsteady income of a working songwriter/musician. He listened intently, then related my situation to that of the struggling tiger—a figure especially prominent in Dial’s earlier work, one that is consistently referred to in scholarship on Dial as being both autobiographical and tied more generally to the enduring African-American fight for social and economic justice. Based on this, the application of the tiger metaphor was exactly inappropriate. But I felt that he was talking to me as a (wiser) fellow man and father, finding common ground somewhere between our obvious differences in race, generation, and background. Maybe he was just being polite—or surreptitiously suggesting that if I thought my troubles were serious, to consider his people’s legacy, a very different fate: try a few hundred years of slavery, prejudice, and cultural marginalization, kid. Perhaps he was trying to steer the conversation back to the art, what brought us both there.
That brief encounter with the artist has stayed with me. A few years after that meeting, I purchased my first Dial: a self-portrait watercolor, graphite, and ink drawing on 5” x 7” paper. Titled Looking Up (1993), it remains a cornerstone of my personal collection. Though I’ve been kidded by other collectors about its size, I love it precisely because of that: it is so small and so singularly focused, compared to the large multi-media pieces for which Dial is now known.
Mr. Dial’s three-dimensional work has its aesthetic foundations in African-American yard art and its chronological beginning in the crafting of utilitarian objects such as fishing lures, part of a lifelong interest in what the artist’s late wife described as “making things.” As a child, he made his own toys. His thirty years’ working experience at the Pullman boxcar factory, seeing how templates on paper were developed into full-scale metal objects, led to his using quick sketches to plan out some of his first three-dimensional works mounted on flat panels. Quoting longtime Dial advocate William Arnett: “He would get this industrial chalk . . . He would draw the whole outline of what he was going to put on the panel. And his drawings were beautiful.”
The Arts Company exhibit features a group of approximately twenty of these early works on paper, dating from 1990 to 1997, and a select group of early paintings on canvas. If you are seeking a meticulously crafted, photographic realism, you won’t find it here. What is discovered, once truly seen, is a wildly energetic, confident line; images that show Dial working through a kind of iconography of the American dispossessed, of those who continue to struggle in the “Land of the Free.”
Gee’s Bend: From Needle and Thread to Intaglio
Quilters from the remote hamlet of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, have seen their profiles and fortunes raised since the first exhibition of their work, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, opened at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 2002. The show traveled to many other prominent U.S. museums through 2008, including the Whitney in New York and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. In a review of the Whitney exhibit, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman referred to the quilts as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” Most of the quilts shown were several decades old, and the visible wear from age and usage was an informing (though unintended) aesthetic element, creating texture and tension, as well as offering silent testament to the difficult lives led by the quilters and their community. The artists continue to make quilts, though from newer materials and, now perceived as art, most intended for sale. Though these new quilts evoke neither the visual pathos nor historical resonance of the earlier examples, they are striking in their distinctive improvisational designs, which progress from, and echo back to, those of earlier generations of Gee’s Bend quilters. It is easy to romanticize the stains and frayed edges of some of those early quilts, their undeniable “authenticity,” but the newer works are authentic, too: they represent where their makers are today—successful artists who are able to use what they want, be it recycled clothing from friends or family, scraps from older “cutter” quilts, or new material purchased at a fabric store.
In 2003, en route to the opening of the Quilts of Gee’s Bend show in Milwaukee, a bus carrying several of the women stopped in at the Arts Company; their quilts were hanging in the gallery. I brought my family down, my wife and two kids, to see the quilts and to hear the women sing. Unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, a roomful of people stood and listened (and wept) as a group of quilters sang an a cappella set of gospel songs in the middle of the room, and the offhand quality of this musically tight ensemble said as much about their ties to each other as it did about the ties to their faith and those old songs through which it is expressed.
In 2005, two quilters, Mary Lee Bendolph and her daughter-in-law, Louisiana, traveled to Paulson Press in Berkeley, California, to experiment with a special printing technique that would enable their quilt designs to become works of art on paper. Press owner Pam Paulson, after seeing the original Gee’s Bend show at the Whitney, “decided that it was ‘important work to bring into the mainstream art world’—specifically, through printmaking.” For two weeks, the Bendolphs worked with the printmakers in a complex process: Mary Lee and Louisiana first pieced maquettes (miniature quilt tops) from various fabrics. Limited editions of six designs were produced; each is pencil-signed by the artist who created and effected the image. Though they resemble the quilts for which their makers are known, these etchings also capture something else: “The intimate size of the fabric maquettes and prints . . . brings out a latent gestural quality in the . . . quiltmakers’ deployment of fabric and reiterates that [their] artistry extends beyond sewing and design proficiencies.” A group of these etchings will be part of the July show, and available for purchase at the Arts Company.
Great American Art: Thornton Dial and the Gee’s Bend Quilters opens July 7 at The Arts Company during the First Saturday Art Crawl, 6–9 p.m.
Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial is on view at the Frist Center until September 3, 2012. fristcenter.org