Hailing from Alabama, Thornton Dial (1928-2016) had a long career as a railroad welder for the Pullman Standard Company before he turned to art. His first works developed around metal frames as he used his knowledge of steelworking for new purpose. Even as Dial’s art evolved to wall-mounted constructions incorporating found materials from his community of Bessemer, he maintained the aesthetic of twisted metal in his art. The rope in this work visually evokes the structure and strength of his earlier armatures while also standing for the walls of a house and the skin of the tigers.
Throughout his practice, Dial repurposed found materials, sometimes in homage to their original purpose, sometimes in the service of new narratives. Here, towels, rope, cut metal and carpet are all incorporated into a work that depicts not only a building and tigers, but also references hard labor (towels, rope), industry (metal) and domesticity (carpet). Dial never shied away from addressing challenging themes, and the tigers climbing to the top of the building refer to the struggles of African Americans.
Dial has been the subject of several major retrospectives, including the 2011 touring exhibition Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. His work is in many museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Dial’s work will feature prominently in an upcoming exhibition of Southern African American Vernacular Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.