Welcome to 21st-Century Art

Nashvillians and guests have exciting art adventures in store this summer related to two concurrent exhibitions of Thornton Dial and the Gee's Bend Quilters.

One is at the Frist Center for Visual Arts:  an original exhibition curated by chief curator Mark Scala.  Titled Creation Story:  Gee's Bend Quilts and The Art of Thornton Dial, the Frist exhibit is focused on the artistic relationships that have developed in the last decade or so since Mr. Dial and the Gee's Bend quilters have become aware of each other.

The other is at The Arts Company: curated to complement the Frist exhibit, this exhibit---Contemporary American Artists:  Thornton Dial and Gee's Bend Quilters--focuses on Mr. Dial's early drawings and the recent etchings some of the Gee's Bend quilters participated in making, based on their quilt designs.  Though some of the editions have already sold out, the exhibit includes some of the most representative etchings still available, along with a few of their iconic original quilts.

The Arts Company exhibit invites guests to experience "the art of visual improvisation" that these artists have added to the lexicon of contemporary art in very particular ways.  Both Mr. Dial and the Gee's Bend quilters have become known in the art world through the persistent efforts of Bill Arnett, a scholar in the role of art in primitive cultures worldwide, who returned to his southern roots in Atlanta to see why black culture in the south was rich in music--jazz, the blues, gospel--yet there was no clear evidence of visual art in the culture.  Knowing from his studies and experiences that it was odd for a culture not to have both musical and visual art roots, he traveled southern byroads near his home base and made ground-breaking discoveries, including Mr. Dial's work and the quilts of Gee's Bend.  He has since devoted his scholarship and other resources, including financial, to bring this particular vernacular art to the attention of the world.

"Untitled (Life Go On) 1" by Thornton Dial

Per the way human nature works, no good thing goes unpunished.  It has been a long and difficult journey to bring his artistic discoveries to the attention of the art world.  However, over the last 20 years, major exhibitions and publications have come about, thanks to Mr. Arnett's efforts.  Now there are testimonials coming from within the culture of the art world from art critics and writers who are making the case for these artists as major artistic pioneers of the 21st-century.

There is no simple and quick way to take in the scope and depth of these relatively new-found artists.  Compare it to what it might have been like some 100 years ago when people fist began to see Picasso's art.  Like his, this work is fresh, original, and pioneering in a distinctly contemporary way.  This new work shows the underbelly of American history and culture--the Achilles heel of racism and the profound effects of institutional and personal prejudice.  These are black artists who have found their way out of this maze through their artwork.  Coming out of the primitive isolated cultures of the south, artists with no formal education or training and no hope for anything better,  theses artists have defied the odds loaded against them with their sense of what art can do and be as part of their own lives.  They took the scant leftovers of their lives and made them part of their artistic practice.  They practiced their art in isolation for years, not thinking of themselves as artists and not being familiar with the art world, until their recent discovery.

Gee's Bend Quilt by Lucy Mingo

This is not artwork to be glossed over, just walking through exhibits and thinking you have seen something weird, too weird or raw to concern yourself with any further.  When you see this art, you are seeing artwork that reflects our time and place, universal insights seen through familiar cultural, political, and historical skeletons.  At first viewing, this is not necessarily pretty art.  But it is for sure fresh, original, profound, entertaining, provocative, and daunting--all at the same time.  If you truly look and learn, you will find a sense of beauty you did not know before.

These artists are now becoming part of the artistic legacy of our time and place.  It is an honor to be acquainted with them and their work.  They have added dimension and depth to our experience of what art is and what it can be about.  The high world of art cannot easily dismiss them at this point.  Nor can we.

Do your homework on these artists.  Read about them online and in books and in museums and galleries.  They are close enough to us in Tennessee--they are all from Alabama--that they are home folks to us.  Paris and NYC no longer own all there is to be said about what art is and how it works.  See for yourself while you have this special chance.  These artists and these exhibitions take time.  Make this a summer learning adventure.

Both exhibits will continue through August.  At The Arts Company, we have set up a space where you can see videos, check online sources, and leaf through the volumes that have been written about Mr. Dial and about the Gee's Bend quilters.  We would love to strike up a conversation with you.  Come see us...and the great staff at the Frist--to learn more.

Contemporary American Artists:  Thornton Dial and Gee's Bend Quilters
July 7-August 18

Creation Story:  The Art of Thornton Dial and Gee's Bend Quilts
May 25-September 3