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Thornton Dial's early drawings, at the Ackland

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One day in April 2009, UNC-Chapel Hill American studies professor Bernie Herman stood with his students in a metal shop in Bessemer, Ala. They were gathered around an elderly, self-taught African-American artist named Thornton Dial, who was preparing a demonstration. As he recounted later, Herman almost didn't believe what he was seeing.

Dial, who's known for his large mixed-media paintings and assemblage sculptures, had been asked to do a drawing on command. Placing a sheet of paper on a makeshift table, the artist stood over it holding a stick of charcoal, concentrating on the blank surface. Suddenly his arm lashed out, looping a complete female figure in one fluid line. Details quickly appeared around and within the twisting figure: hair, facial features, shading. But the instantaneous burst of that first gestural form—that was the jaw-dropper.

This recent drawing, as well as dozens of others from an intensely productive period circa 1990–91, can be seen in the exhibition Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper at the Ackland Art Museum. The show, which Herman guest-curated, also includes a floor sculpture as well as a don't-miss-it video that one of Herman's students shot of the drawing event.

Thoughts on Paper isn't a retrospective. In fact, it's more of a microspective. The 50 drawings that crowd the gallery walls represent less than a fifth of Dial's output during that brief period. This time compression is apparent to the eye.

Thoughts on Paper is organized into four thematic sections: "Life Go On," "Lady Will Stand by Her Tiger," "Rooster Pictures" and "Fishing for Love." The "Life Go On" images are particularly reverent and expressive of feminine strength. In several, hens sit on women's heads, becoming sustaining food animals rather than anthropomorphic possibilities.

Dial uses every inch of his surface, in this case paper measuring about 2 feet by 2-1/2 feet. Birds, fish, women and his signature, semi-autobiographical tigers crawl and intertwine to form a sensual iconography on a unified, depthless field. And the same kinetic, initial line is there in these earlier drawings. Dial was sometimes so aggressive that he scarred the paper.

It would be easy to read this period of rapid, thematically repetitive output as manic, as if Dial were haunted by the subject matter. But that would be a misreading. After his first one-man show in 1990 at Kennesaw State College near Atlanta, a critic wrote that Dial couldn't draw and that his palette was "dour." Dial quite intentionally set out to prove the critic wrong. Far from manic reverie, this is a kind of drill work.

Still, Dial's drawings aren't without a disturbing side, with frank sexuality that might unnerve viewers. It's impossible to resist symbolic interpretation of his categories of images, and particularly of his portrayal of women. In "Lady Holds the Long Neck Bird," the naked woman could be embracing or dancing with a distended bird. It's ambiguous as to whether the image is erotic or lyrical. "Laying Down with the Tiger" and "Lady Will Stand by Their Tigers," however, are raw sexual scenes. But throughout all the work, women—though unclothed and contorted—are the sources of power, visited by the menagerie to draw strength. Sex, here, is procreative, inspiring.

Compositionally different, the pieces in the "Fishing for Love" section feature fish images that convey a deep sense of calm. A fish is usually vertically centered down the image, with a woman on either side. The curves of their bodies are matched and shared as in a figure/ ground optical illusion. Symmetrical and placid, these works speak of faith as an omnipresent, integral force.

Overall, Dial's output on exhibit here is strange and wonderful and adds up to a necessary, social surrealism much more than a merely aesthetic or subversively political one. Dial's work from this fecund period is about the forces that people depend upon to navigate interpersonal relationships and daily life. And it's about presence: that first spectacular line, ready to be unfurled from each of us.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The most dynamic line."

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