Irony is a marvelous thing, especially when it appears in unintended situations. One online dictionary defines irony as “The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” That would be intended irony. But, then, there’s the irony of accident that tells us much more about ourselves than we might want to know. I’m thinking of situations that reveal values and beliefs so deeply rooted that they go unremarked and in that silence mold how we experience and understand the world around us. Sometimes we say exactly what we mean in ways so subtle that we fail to sense the irony in our actions. So it is with the installation of Thornton Dial’s sculpture Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City at Atlanta’s High Museum, the last stop of the travelling Hard Truths exhibition.
Completed in 2005, Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City presents a two-sided (truly janiform) sculpture that offers a powerful commentary on the paradox of social identities that prejudice and convention have simultaneously kept separate and conjoined. Dial’s sculpture stands almost eight feet tall and is composed of a “front” and a “back” – and this where our trouble begins. One side of the work consists of a paneled wall with a centrally placed door framed by columns capped with the suggestion of a pediment. A painted doormat placed in front of the closed opening (significantly without hinges, bell, latch, or knob) bears the single word, “Welcome.” That would be part of Dial’s intended irony. The opposite side of the sculpture is composed of weathered and distressed boards, wire, and rusted tin. There is no door here, but two woodpeckers (known in the African-American South as peckerwoods, a word that shoulders its own perjorative burden) flutter against the raw wood ensnared in twisted metal fencing. We can imagine the staccato hammering of their bills against wood, futilely banging their heads against a wall without portal.
So, here it is. The two sides of Peckerwood City – one stiffly formal and uninviting, the other rough and patched together with found materials: a door denying access backed with a wall without a door. There is no front or back to this sculpture – just two sides that speak to connections marked by lack of access. If institutional, economic, and political power defines the “front”, then the paneled side of Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City is indeed the forward face. But, if the struggle for admittance, freedom, and equal opportunity are the primary power, then the face with the ensnared peckerwoods is the “front.” Dial forces us to consider where we locate agency and power through the juxtaposition of two historical social realities. The irony of who and what is welcome is obvious, but the conflicted depths to which that irony marks us all requires a good deal of reflection.
Context may not be everything, but it sure accounts for a lot. We arrive at the unintended irony of the installation of Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City at the High Museum. Dial’s sculpture is positioned on the second level of a three-story installation that overall provides viewers ample room to stand back, contemplate, and absorb the art Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City is placed in the gallery in such a way that the visitor can see the paneled, the white, the formal, the powerful “front” elevation in its entirety. To see the opposite “back” black side, it’s up to the viewer to find their way around the work without label or instruction. There’s no opportunity here to stand back and comprehend the rough, brown, worn, weathered, patched together elevation straight on and in its entirety. Instead, the view of the peckerwood face is hemmed in, fragmentary, oblique, and, by physical constraint, intimate – and it emphasizes this face of Dial’s sculpture as the “back.” The installation presents a stunning amplification of the work’s message – and, based on a lack of wall text, delivered seemingly without critical consideration.
Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City could have been positioned in other ways as it was at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. For example, if the work were rotated 180º, it would foreground the struggle and in doing so reveal the insistent voices that test the limits of power, the sound of fists on a non-existent door knocking for entry. Or, if the work were rotated 90º in the same space, we could engage our troubled past and present from a perspective that cements two Southern histories in one creative gesture and one narrative where we can never back off enough to see the entirety of it all. But, in this installation there is a white front and a black back—and no matter how innocent that decision may have been, it speaks quietly and unequivocally to tensions in our unresolved national histories, provoking us to consider who holds power and who doesn’t. Now, that’s an unintended irony that instructs us all.