I, Too, Am Alabama is a retrospective of the works of artist Thornton Dial. The show is at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA), and I had a chance to visit last weekend.
I was first introduced to Mr. Dial’s art in 2007 from the documentary Mr. Dial Has Something To Say. I think it was my first experience seeing art created from “found objects” on such a large scale. Mr. Dial used every thing imaginable: shoes, cloth, dolls, soda bottles, wire. You’d think those objects would just be limited to sculptures but he also used them in his paintings, building mixed-media pieces that reach out for your attention. BUT DO NOT TOUCH!
Mr Dial, a self-taught artist, seemed to be quiet, reserved, and contemplative. Born in 1928, he had an impoverished childhood, typical for Black Southern children, then as an adult, raised his family on a metalworker’s salary. He focused on creating art in 1981 after his job shuttered and the world is a beneficiary of that seemingly wrong choice.
You will find art that is honest, bold, humorous, and subtle at AEIVA. My favorite pieces were his 2010’s February and his 2008’s Lost Americans. February immediately reminded me of cold morning runs, my feet crushing and crunching the frost covered leaves and grass, tossed trash, and stunned flowers. This piece actually made me shiver a bit and I expected my lungs to release a cloudy exhale. A closer look at February shows the details of what looks like frost but can’t be. Tiny splotches of paint cover metal, fabric, wood, and other objects literally freezing them in time. I didn’t need one but wish I’d had a jacket as I stood in front February because I was completely immersed in its experience.
Lost Americans is a jigsaw puzzle of artifacts, consciously placed to indicate movement. There are shoes, legs, a wooden case, and fabric that could be used as garments. Are the figures moving forward? Are they frozen in fear or terror? Does the metal fence block their progress or do they look forward to stepping over it or bursting through it? There are no actual “faces” in the piece and I wondered if, like Janus, they looked back at how far they’d come even as they stepped forward or even sideways. Was the rope in the piece evidence of escape from a tree or bridge, a tool for future success or could it represent both? I still have ten thousand questions about Lost Americans, what it meant and what it means. Would I have ten thousand more questions if I’d observed it for another hour? I think so!
Art is subjective and speaks to us based on our past, our present, and who we aspire to be. I can promise you that something in Mr. Dial’s exhibit will speak to you and you must visit to discover it. Because, although Mr. Dial’s voice may have been hushed, his art roars, cackles, and demands your engagement. Thoughts on sex, violence, racism, justice, success, and love are a few of the statements made through his art. His death in 2016 did not silence him. I, Too, Am Alabama is evidence that Mr. Dial had many things to say and you can hear them through his works.
AEIVA, located at 1221 10th Avenue South, Birmingham, AL 35205, is open Tuesday through Saturday from Noon until 5:00PM. The closing reception for I, Too, Am Alabama is December 9, 2022.