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Art review: Thornton Dial Sr. at the Fleming Museum, University of Vermont

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Thornton Dial Sr. had never heard of Jackson Pollock or Robert Rauschenberg until critics began likening his work to theirs. Working in artistic isolation throughout his life, Dial has developed an entirely original style as a creator of enormous assemblages and, more recently, of sexually charged watercolors.

About 50 examples of his achievement in the latter medium are on display at the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum in a show called “Thornton Dial, Sr.: Thoughts on Paper.”

It’s a coup for a Vermont venue to have landed an exhibit of works by an idiosyncratic African American artist from the Deep South. These days, anything by Dial is a hot commodity. The Fleming show coincides with a favorably reviewed retrospective of his work that originated at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and has traveled to New Orleans; Charlotte, N.C.; and, soon, Atlanta.

Dial was born into poverty in rural Alabama in 1928. Like many African Americans of that time and place, he received no formal schooling and can barely read or write. Raised by his great-grandmother, Dial tended crops as a young child. He moved to Bessemer, Ala., near Birmingham, at age 12 and spent most of the next 40 years working in a metal fabrication plant until it shut down.

After hours, Dial was a garage artist who built dense towers and intricately layered horizontal constructions using whatever he could find: discarded plastic toys, tree branches, animal bones, buckets, rope and other junk. Dial found artistic inspiration in the “yard shows” — arrangements of found objects — that are common in some black neighborhoods in the South.

He worked in obscurity until the late 1980s, when William Arnett, a white collector and art historian from Atlanta, took notice. Dial has been riding a skyrocket to fame ever since; some of his pieces now fetch six figures at auction.

In the early ’90s, he began composing watercolors, reportedly in response to a critic’s comment that Dial didn’t know how to draw. The Fleming show, which presents a small sampling of the hundreds of works on paper that Dial produced in a few years, confirms that he lacks art school training. Each piece includes one or more elongated female face with features drawn as if by a child.

Art arbiters have categorized Dial as an outsider or folk artist because of his lack of sophisticated technique. But that pigeonholing has rankled his admirers, according to New York Times reporter Carol Kino. Reviewing a Dial show, Times critic Roberta Smith cited “the growing uselessness of the distinction” between untrained and trained artists. Bernie Herman, curator of the show that has come to the Fleming from the University of North Carolina’s Ackland Art Museum, agrees. He calls Dial “one of America’s most remarkable living artists.”

That may be so, but the evidence offered by Dial’s watercolors alone does not substantiate such a claim.

For one thing, the show is off-puttingly repetitive. The pieces are similar in size and identical in medium, with little stylistic variety. Dial’s swirling female figures are almost always accompanied by animals — fish, tigers or roosters — sinuously coiled around one another, often in suggestive poses.

It doesn’t help that the show’s wall panels employ academic jargon in analyzing Dial’s work. They interpret many of the pieces as examinations of male-female dichotomies. Dial is cast in the role of a sexual politician exploring the power dynamics between men and women — but that seems too far a stretch. They are right on, by contrast, in pointing out the sexualized content of many of the watercolors.

But viewers don’t need a wall panel to tell them that. If the image of a woman touching a cock doesn’t convey it, the title of one of the show’s most salacious pieces makes it obvious: “Ladies Know How to Hold a Rooster.” In another piece called “Laying Down With the Tiger” a woman reclines, legs splayed, as a jungle cat hovers above her.

Dial might simply be out for a good time. Some viewers may not see a grouping of his loosely sketched women as “seductive mermaids” — the description given on a wall panel — but most will notice that Dial never omits a breast reference, usually as semicircles with big, red dots. There’s nothing somber about his rainbow arrays of watercolors, which celebrate sensuality more than they deconstruct gender roles.

Not every visitor to the show will come away a Dial fan. But most will move from piece to piece with appreciative smiles.

“Thornton Dial Sr.: Thoughts on Paper,” at Fleming Museum, University of Vermont, Burlington. Through December 14. uvm.edu/~fleming

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