Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Authors on Artists: James Tadd Adcox on Thornton Dial

If I’m That Good They’ll Have to Kill Me 

by James Tadd Adcox

Who Got the Corn, 2012 

I can’t find a single picture of a piece by Thornton Dial that actually gets at what I like about his work. I look at these photographs and I think, that looks nice. They look very composed. They look skillful. In some cases they look pretty. Homey. Like something you might find at a particularly good craft fair.

When the security guard at the High Museum in Atlanta told me that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, I thought: “No real loss.”

Lost Cows, 2000-2001

Faced with Dial’s work, and the failure of photographs to get at it, I want to start making grand pronouncements. Something along the lines of “art is that which cannot be photographed.” But I immediately start thinking of counterexamples, good art that stands up perfectly well to photographic reproduction.

I suspect, instead, that what cannot be photographed is the overwhelmingness. There are qualities of Dial’s work, conventional artistic qualities, like color, balance, overall composition, that come across perfectly well.

Certainly there are photographs that are overwhelming. But in such cases, I suspect the overwhelmingness is a property of the photograph itself, that there is no necessary connection between the overwhelmingness of a subject and that of the photo. Photographs tend to make subjects that are themselves overwhelming less so: mountains become pretty; the sea becomes harmless, a set design. Dial’s works—do we call them paintings? Sculptures?—become less threatening. The composition (which recedes in the immediacy of the experience when I encounter a work by Dial) becomes foregrounded.

High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man), 2002

Dial’s work has been referred to as “folk art” or “outsider art.”

Strange Fruit, Channel 42, 2003

It is impossible for an English speaker to actually know what English sounds like, that is, to encounter English as a purely aesthetic object. We can imitate other languages without knowing those languages (as an easy example, think of the Muppets’ Swedish Chef), but it is the not-knowing that allows us to imitate them; it is more-or-less impossible for us to imitate English.

You might remember how it was before you learned to read. When you looked at writing, you didn’t simply ignore it; you couldn’t; it hummed with a sort of electric power; when you imitated it—most children do—you were not imitating the meaning of the writing, but the experience of it.

Or if you have learned another language: consider how different that language sounded before you understood it, how difficult, if not impossible it is, to hear the language now the way you heard it then.

Lost Farm (Billy Goat Hill), 2000

The media for Lost Farm (Billy Goat Hill) are listed as the following: desiccated goat, rat, and turkey; steel; rope; carpet; rope carpet; peach basket; wood; tire scraps; plastic toys; shoes; motor-oil bottle; wire fencing; chairs; ironing board; farm and construction tools; wire; paintbrushes; enamel; spray paint; and Splash Zone compound on canvas and wood.

 Trophies (Doll Factory), 2000

The art I like best exhausts me. The first time I saw Dial’s career retrospective Hard Truths, I couldn’t make it all the way through. This is now the sixth time I have gone to see Hard Truths, in the second museum.

New Light, 2004

At the High Museum, an older, balding man is leading two young boys through the exhibition. “That represents the hard times,” the man says, “the death of the animals at the farm.”

“What’s that?” asks one of the boys, pointing to the ropes.

“His frustration. He couldn’t get away from the farm.” They walk on to another piece. “And this represents when he got electricity.”

In each case, he knew just what each piece meant. He could look at a piece and say immediately, and what he said was what that piece was, precisely, and having pronounced this he and the two boys had nothing left to look at, and would move on.


James Tadd Adcox is the author of The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, a collection of stories, available from Tiny Hardcore Press. He lives in Chicago.