"I've always been a hustler," Thornton Dial says to me at the opening reception for Creation Story, a Frist exhibit that features his work alongside pieces by the quilters of Gee's Bend. He is a thin man with cloudy eyes and a NASCAR hat pulled low on his head, looking more relaxed than invalid in a wheelchair, and it sounds as sweet as when my grandfather used to tease me about how young I was. But Dial isn't teasing — he works hard, creates a lot, and has a huge body of work to sift through, with new pieces coming all the time.
Dial's first piece in the exhibit, "Memory of the Ladies That Gave Us the Good Life," is reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg's "Bed" from 1955, but with the color palette of a Monet. At 98 by 82 inches, it's a massive amalgamation of wood, carpet, tin, wire and a slew of other things unusual to see in a painting — a birdbath, a lady's shoulder pad. It's almost like thumbing through one of those I Spy books for kids. It does look like a quilt, though — big and textured and based on a grid-like pattern — and it works well at the beginning of the exhibit. Aside from this piece, the first several rooms are filled only with quilts from Gee's Bend, so it hints at a cohesion between the two art forms that might otherwise be too obscure to appreciate.
Of the Thornton Dial works, the strongest are the freestanding sculptures — what the exhibition signage names "yard works." "Freedom Cloth" (2005) is an homage to the Gee's Bend quilters. Dial met the artists in 2001, and like a sponge he absorbed his ideas about them and turned them into art. (Other examples of this reflexive art-making quality are Dial's painting "Lost," which is based on his impression of the titular television series, and "The Rich Man's House," which Dial made after watching news reports about the 2011 tsunami in Japan.) "Freedom Cloth" is cluttered with Dial's approximation of birds in flight — coat hangers wrapped in cloth and covered in paint. There are swaths of fabric tied together, hanging limply around the steel structure like an African mascot or a decorative garbage heap. Artificial palms and fake flowers look like roadside monuments, and the pattern of enamel and spray paint that Dial has used to cover the piece has the color scheme of a puddle of motor oil in sunlight.
"Life and Death of the Moonshine Man," "Birmingham News," and "The Farmer's Wife and the Colored Graveyard" are other standouts.
There's a video installed at the space in the exhibition where Dial's work takes over for the Gee's Bend quilters. Mr. Dial Has Something to Say, a 2007 documentary from Alabama Public Television, effectively introduces Dial's work, but it also speaks to the collaboration between Dial and his benefactor, William Arnett. The pair began working together in the late 1980s. At the Frist's opening Arnett, wearing a linen suit and speaking with a thick Georgia drawl, introduced himself as someone who enjoys grandstanding. He spoke of the importance of black culture in America, citing jazz and blues as two of the most historically relevant elements of American culture. Arnett, a trained art dealer and historian, reasoned that there must be a visual art component to the black American culture. He believes he found it in the work of Thornton Dial.
In 1993, Morley Safer visited Dial and Arnett for a segment on 60 Minutes, and portrayed Dial as a kind of art world Uncle Tom, and Arnett as a sneaky conman. The interview was devastating to both artist and patron, and you can sort of feel the defensiveness in the exhibition, which includes a lot of video to contextualize the work, and a selection of pieces that spans years and shows the history and contemporary relevance of the work.
The Gee's Bend quilts are much quieter than the Thornton Dial work, and Creation Story is effectively two separate exhibitions that share a catalog — the ties that bind the two (the artists' poor backgrounds, using castaway objects to create something beautiful) are tenuous and desultory. The quilters of Gee's Bend, a tiny rural enclave in southwest Alabama, came into fame after a 2002 exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but their quilt-making tradition may go back as far as the early 1800s. In 2006, 10 of their quilts were chosen to appear on a series of U.S. postal stamps. These are no longer marginal artists — the Gee's Bend quilters are big names, and rightfully so.
Among the strongest pieces in the Frist exhibition is a quilt by Lucy Pettway from 1955 that illustrates a map of the old Pettway community where she lived. At the top of the quilt, a large housetop pattern represents the plantation house, and four smaller housetop patterns are just below. To the left, strips of green floral material stand in for the crops that grew beside the houses. Strips of bright red and hot pink look a lot like red Alabama soil. And a thick blue stripe along the right side of the quilt is the Alabama River. The fabric is stained on some parts, the borders are crooked, and the strong colors on the right far outweigh the delicate patterns on the left. But like a Persian rug, Central Asian suzani textiles and African kente cloth, the elaborate motifs and handmade imperfections only increase the quilts' sensibility.
The more recent quilts, from as early as the '70s, lack the same worn, weathered, castaway feeling. Essie Bendolph Pettway's "pinwheel" variation from 2000 is beautiful and rhythmic, but the fabric seems brand-new, the lines clean and straight. The stained denim and patched, sun-bleached twill of the 1920s and '30s are nowhere to be found. The newer works may draw attention to the artists' craftmanship and away from the domestic, clandestine attributes of quiltmaking, but they also reinforce just how important the history of the material is to the story these quilts tell.