Now in his 84th year Thornton Dial has created since 2011 some of his most astonishing, wrenching, and affecting works. Colin Rhodes, Becky Herman, and I made the trek from Chapel Hill to Bessemer, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia, to see Mr. Dial’s recent art. The Disasterseries seen at the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta contains major constructions devoted to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Texas drought, and the Alabama tornado outbreak of 2011.
In Tuscaloosa Dial evokes lashing cyclonic winds through objects whipped into flight; in Ninth Ward he captures the drifts of floating debris that constitute all that remains of flooded, relocated lives.
In The Cows of Japan, Dial presents a wave flattened fence line against a background scoured clean of animals, buildings, people. The cows, he notes, have all been swept away. Their absence renders the presence of loss, tangible and silent.
Mr. Dial’s 2012 work speaks to the mule, the most venerable and iconic of Southern draft animals. Dial makes the mule and its larger meanings present in his art, including works like In the Times of Struggle and Blood and To the Credit of the Mule, by implication: knotted rope, torn and paint-stiffened rag, found wood and metal. The mule, Dial remarks, turns the earth revealing buried histories and tramples the earth burying and reburying those same histories. The cycle of life and its narratives are plowed up and plowed under through labor without end. But, the mule as hard as it works, even to the point of death, holds the power of resistance – and no lash, no uttered endearment, no goad, no curse can drive it forward. Endurance and resistance, Dial would have us know, writes a human history that defines and limits all power. And, in this equation, history bends to rhetorical ambition, its truths revealed at best as partial, as fleeting. Only the churning of memory and the mule’s plodding exertions endure. Dial speaks to themes of the mule, history, and art.