The title of Hard Labor (1998) describes its act of making: four-foot square in size, and rendered from industrial materials such as carpeting, metal, and rope, it is dim, twisted and tortured, an iron clasp at the center of the canvas describing the handle of a briefcase. Indeed, the late, great Thornton Dial labored for decades as a metalworker at the Pullman-Standard Company, which manufactured railways, and made work from found materials beginning from his childhood on a sharecropping farm in Alabama.
References to labor and the Bible run deep in “Paintings: 1990-1998,” an exhibition of Dial’s three-dimensional wall works at James Fuentes. The brown-black canvas Adam and Eve, the First to Come (Looking for the Garden)(1997) [pictured], depicts two figures in relief, peeping out of a string-thatched house, surrounded by plastic artificial flowers, overfull and illusory. In the biblical story, the pair start in the garden and are banished from it; in Dial’s telling, the garden is yet to come, and where they begin holds false promise. In this way, Dial’s Adam and Eve imagines the first couple held in American slavery, and projects a truly heavenly future for them and their ilk.
Thornton Dial, Adam and Eve, the First to Come (Looking for the Garden) (1997). Initialed recto bottom right corner. Enamel and mixed media on canvas mounted on wood, 62 x 62 x 9 inches.