Want to invalidate a widespread tendency? Step into the Alabama Contemporary Art Center (ACAC).
Formerly known as the Centre for the Living Arts, the exhibit space at 301 Conti St. in downtown Mobile premieres its new moniker with an exhibit in which the eradication of labels is central. Under the title “History Refused to Die,” the show highlights our state’s world-class talent that couldn’t be quelled.
Humans like labels. Sometimes they’re used as descriptions but sometimes they become barriers.
Names for art’s periods and styles — Impressionist, Expressionist, Dada, Cubist, etc. — can bear historical relevance. The emergence of Folk art as a classification provided a means for marginalization as much as anything.
Come the 1970s, the label Outsider art proliferated and was quickly slapped on anyone who originated beyond the institutions of mainstream standards. It also smacked of elitism.
Enter William Arnett. In the ‘70s, he began to collect work from rural Alabama artists and made it his mission to convince the world their art was as relevant as that of the “masters” of the academies.
Chief among his “finds” was Thornton Dial. The self-taught artist from the west Alabama hamlet of Emelle moved to Bessemer as a child and was surrounded by self-taught artists.
The introduction to Arnett in 1987 changed Dial’s life. In the next decade Dial’s work appeared in Atlanta, New York City and Paris. Since then, Dial has been in the Whitney Biennial, had exhibits in New Orleans, Houston, Indianapolis and been a part of shows at the High Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.
Initially there was scandal, attempts to discredit both Dial and Arnett that culminated in a one-sided “60 Minutes” piece in 1993. Time wiped that away.
Not the clock, but the magazine. It was in Time Magazine where critic Richard LaCayo in 2011 compared Dial to Robert Rauschenberg, Pablo Picasso and Georges Bacque.
What LaCayo realized and defended is what matters isn’t your background, what matters is the result. Is it relevant how many art history professors you suffered under if the work you produce is of a certain quality, complexity and depth?
The ACAC exhibit covers a breadth of personalities, subjects and mediums. Near the entrance, a video installation by Tom Leeser takes entrants on a tour of Joe Minter’s sprawling Birmingham sculpture garden African Village in America. At the rear of the building, an interior representation takes up a darkened cavernous room, Minter’s creations swaddled in spotlights as film clips dance on the walls around them.
There are quilts representing the now-famous Gee’s Bend artisans, another group who benefited from Arnett’s diligence. Also present are works from other Alabama “outsiders,” Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, the obligatory Mose T, an assortment of Dial family members.
Though there are approximately 75 noteworthy pieces in the show, Thornton Dial’s work certainly stands out. It bears his distinctive palette. It’s dense, dynamic and expressive.
In a nation where we ostensibly value the auto-didact, where names like Carl Sandburg and Abraham Lincoln are giants of stature and stone, where is the acclaim for these working class heroes? Why is Thornton Dial not widely considered on a level with his contemporaries, with Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly or Jasper Johns?
These pieces are from Arnett’s Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a collection that donated 57 pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2014 and has an exhibit there that begins in fall 2016. Their presence in Mobile should be landmark.
This exhibit is a liberation and validation of the African-American experience and testimony to the talent in our own backyard. These artists are from upriver, the Black Belt and areas of rural Alabama often highlighted for its near third world conditions. These artists blaze through those limitations with an indomitable human spirit.
Dial once told an interviewer, “I ain’t much for talking. You look at my art you seeing my mind. Art is to learn from. It show you the truth. For me, too. The more you mess with art, the more you understand.”
Art is supposed to be about giving us new eyes to see the world. What these artists have done is give us new eyes to see those around us and in turn, new eyes to see ourselves.