Gulf Winds

John Haber
in New York City

Thornton Dial, Deborah Luster, and Yoan Capote

So close and yet so far. For a while, the distance to Cuba was everywhere in the news, as a little boy survived his mother's death, in an attempt to flee to Miami. Ten others drowned as well. The fate of Eliàn Gonzàles in 2000 came to stand for any number of contested claims. So what if, in the end, it boiled to an ordinary custody dispute?

When Yoan Capote measures the distance from Cuba to America, it is not just a family matter, but it is not so very different. It is the aspiration in a politically divided and physically damaged world for anyone to find a home. Deborah Luster finds New Orleans decimated by murder, to the point that it looks all but abandoned. Thornton Dial's We All Live Under the Same Old Flag (Andrew Edlin gallery, 2010)Yet each photograph testifies to human choices, including the decision to survive. And Thornton Dial again puts the political or artistic label outsider in question, now in his eighty-second year. It is only a coincidence that all three document the south—or, in the case of Carlos Amorales—an earthquake in Mexico—but one can feel a storm coming up from the Gulf and a cold wind blowing down from mainstream America.

In life as in art, Dial has earned his optimism the hard way. He is having his first New York solo show since 1999, and his retrospective (starting in Indianapolis) is bypassing the city. He lives maybe twenty miles outside of Birmingham, in a town that long since gave up what hopes it had from mining and steelmaking. He came to art at all only in his fifties, from the waste he found on the street and as a metalworker for Pullman-Standard rail cars. Like that name, everything in his life speaks of the rigors and promises of African American history. His work refuses to abandon or to give up on anything.

As a label, outsider art has its limits, so long after modern artists delighted in playing both outsiders and insiders. It is also a limiting label, and Dial no doubt has his limits. He has nothing like folk art's naive and detailed realism, but he has his share of encrusted junk. Still, one can see how much he can do when he returns more than once to the American flag. As I stepped back, I realized how much he had first made me step close. I realized, too, how each of these artists can accumulate layer after layer all within a larger vision of America.

Capture the flag

I knew I was not looking at outsider art when I saw the flag. Thornton Dial covers six feet of blood-red canvas with a metallic weave of white and blue. It draws one in simply as abstraction, to linger over the smears and drips, but the crossed diagonals will not lie flat. Some belong to the ends of a blue cloth flecked with white, hanging down from one corner. Many more belong to bare branches and twigs, some breaking the rough edges of a very rough rectangle, like the aftermath of a storm. If Jackson Pollock created action painting, here the stillness is disturbing. The sole action figure, a toy robot or superhero, hangs headless and upside-down.

Perhaps only the whiteness or the air of a graveyard makes some of the wood look like human bones. But no, Dial really has tossed the viewer a bone, near the bottom, where it can rest as if of its own weight. Finally, as a proper connoisseur, I stepped back to view the whole—long enough to see that the fleck of white on blue stand for stars. This is the flag, as heavily worked and as in your face as the classic by Jasper Johns, but with a distinctly American history of its own. It has room for painterly pleasures amid the desolation, and the painter has come to terms with both. As he calls it, We All Live Under the Same Old Flag.

Naturally no one was quite sure what to make of him for a very long time, much like an artist that he mentored back home, Ronald Lockett. His one big New York showing, in 1993, divided up between the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the American Folk Art Museum, as if in search of a label or a home. He has turned up at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, as a "vernacular artist," and in a Whitney Biennial heavy on political art, where I never so much as took note of it. Even his late wife treated his assemblages as "junk" and wanted them buried. Accounts differ on whether the task fell to him or his sons, but either way one has to wonder what else is buried in Alabama. As another title in his new show has it, You Can't Get Away from the Shotgun House.

You can't go home again, and you can't get away. Dial tells that story insistently—often, as with the flag, as the story of a bruised, weathered, and still insistent America. The green eagle of Masters of Space, in paint-stained neckties, spreads its wings over another grid of red, white, and blue. Perched on a tin pipe and a nest of crumpled flowers, it might have emerged from a tarnished quarter dollar only to soar again. More fabric and clothes hangers form a black freestanding Freedom Cloth, but it does not look terribly free. Bird fly off here, too, only not very far.

One can see why he earns labels like folk art, self-taught art, or outsider art. One can see why he also earns comparisons to art that he may never have seen. People like to mention Pollock with his spattered canvas, Johns with his flag, Robert Rauschenberg with his combine paintings, Julian Schnabel with his Neo-Expressionism and smashed china, Anselm Kiefer with his mythic landscapes and broken branches, Radcliffe Bailey with the slave trade, or Jean-Michel Basquiat if one needs to invoke a black artist with a spray can. One should think, though, of something much less grandiose, knowing, or up to the minute. Dial has been living with these stories for a long time. Outsider, for a change, comes as a compliment.

The story falls somewhere between myth, black history, and black comedy. The female mannequin in Choices/Sunrise hovers over or treads water, beside bright trees like branching candles. Halfway nude, Eve might be waiting for Adam at a new creation, unless Adam already left behind the watermelon on which a crayfish feasts below. With just half a dozen paintings, more than one from just the last year, the show nonetheless makes clear Dial's themes and materials. He returns often to spray paint, wood, metal, dolls, and fabric, often draped at top left. He keeps returning, too, to his native landscape and the flag.

An eye for an eye

Every death, they say, leaves a hole in the community. Loss of life is everywhere in Deborah Luster's New Orleans, far more than for Mary Ellen Mark, but with only the barest hint of community. Perhaps only the emptiness unites them—the fence, the narrow alley, the shuttered house or storefront, the underside of a highway, the thick weeds outside a cemetery. Perhaps the emptiness is the community.

Deborah Luster's #06-26 South Liberty and 7th Streets (Central City) (Jack Shainman, 2010)I did not know at first that she had photographed the murder capital of the United States, but I might have guessed. Indeed, the look of abandonment made me think of the aftermath of Katrina, as with Sara VanDerBeek. Luster calls it "Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence," which is not the same as choreography or performance, for this is a very slow dance. One woman sits in a lawn chair, with no eye contact, staring away. Otherwise, one can look for a long time for signs of life, other than absences. Graffiti of a little girl or the blanket cast aside on an empty mattress tempts one for a moment to imagine more, but only for a moment.

Did the portrait begin as a memorial and the blanket end as a shroud? Even then, they look abandoned, without the hopefulness of a proper memorial or the fashionable populism of street art. One wall reads RIP, but warnings like NO LOITERING or FUCK YOU seek self-preservation in keeping others away. So, in a sense, do the photographs in black and white, no matter how riveting. Often frontal, they preserve the regularity of closed spaces. They also keep the circular frame of the large-format camera, like a porthole, and the surrounding white emphasizes the photographer's distance from what she sees.

They also draw one in, as violence has a way of doing. One could mistake the circle for a fisheye panorama, much as for Rackstraw Downes in paint, and one could mistake the largest photographs, at nearly fifty by sixty inches, for the scale of the objects themselves. They are not, but they bring one up close, like the perspective of unmediated vision—a literal eye for an eye. The paradox of distance and immersion reflects the disturbing subject matter, but also work's place between documentary photography (and indeed chorography means the detailed analysis of a place) and portraiture or poetry. That space between continues in smaller but still large prints, at more than twenty-four by thirty inches—many in tight rows on a gallery wall and others in portfolios on a table. One can turn the pages and appreciate the quality of the medium, as well as the care to label each print with a name, age, place, and date of murder.

Documentary photography and portraiture alike have to deal with that paradox of sympathy and scrutiny, and the intersection of the personal and the community so often motivates political art. It appears obviously in other records of confrontation, as by Catherine Opie, or of displacement, as by David Goldblatt and Zwelethu Mthethwa in South Africa. Luster is certainly no stranger to dedication or detachment. Although she grew up in Arkansas, her commitment to Louisiana dates to 2002, when, after her mother's murder, she took on the project of photographing prisoners. She has stressed that she could not know them as individuals or present them as psychological studies. The series grew all the same into two books and a collaboration with a poet, C. D. Wright.

The series took her to medium- and maximum-security detention in the northeast part of the state, including the infamous Angola prison. And there, too, humanity does not mean community, while a lack of community does not mean a deficiency of sympathy. Luster called the work One Big Self, but it used neutral backgrounds to focus on the people and efface their surroundings. The new photographs, in contrast, are all surroundings. "Tooth for an Eye" clearly refuses the logic of revenge, suggesting rather a breakdown in logic entirely. Instead of a cycle of violence, it depicts a cycle of violence and the loss of community.

The distance to Cuba

Thankfully, Yoan Capote has made it to the United States, although he still lives in Cuba like Belkis Ayón before him. Thanks to the Obama administration's lowering of at least some barriers, he can open "Mental States" with a view of the open sea, in multiple panels of plywood and jute. With its gray skies, choppy waters, horizontal format, and 800-centimeter scale, it appears insurmountable. In the gallery, it also looks toward New York—and not just because of its location: the artist uses the same materials for a city skyline. An equally familiar photograph of mid-Manhattan's canyons from overhead supplies another image.

Artists keep returning to that skyline, especially since 9/11. Others, too, have turned to near-abstract stormy seas, including Mark Tansey, in a painting that mocks J. M. W. Turner and Romanticism. Capote treats aspirations to America and distant skies as common ground, and he plays on them again in a two-channel video. On one side he fills a window, brick by brick, with what comes out as the American flag. On the other side he tears it down, shirtless and sweating in the sun, leaving a long moment to stare at the sea.

It is a fine moment, and the video's sense of surprise enters the paintings up close, too, through their materials. A thick impasto supplies the white, nails and fishhooks the black. They suggest native culture, torn allegiances, more hard labor, the mechanical detachment of an Andy Warhol silkscreen, virtuoso realism out of Chuck Close, and a threat. Huge unequal scales in the back room suggest that someone has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. A finished version of the flag rests on the floor, and it has way too many stars, as if outsiders are crying to get in. A few miscellaneous works, with Chelsea's mandatory references to sex, do not echo those cries half as well.

The distance from Cuba to Key West is only ninety miles, but the trip to Miami is far longer. The Cold War is over, but change in Cuba is slow. Aside from cultural exchanges, the administration has extended the trade embargo for another year, over protests from human-rights organizations. The usual political hysteria has blocked closing Guantánamo or trying suspects in civilian courts in New York, and Bush's torture regime, Jill Magid reminds one, has made things that much harder. Still, there is hope: Capote has won a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant, and how much more American can you get?

Carlos Amorales describes fears south of the border, too, much like Doris Salcedo in Colombia—but one would hardly know it from the elegance of his display. His wall drawings unfold painstakingly from metal guides, their zigzags assembled from ordinary rulers. Amorales nails them to the all at one end and then shifts them a fraction of an inch at a time. Their tracings have the plain geometry of Minimalism, the optical density of Agnes Martin, the model of a drawing that makes itself from Jasper Johns, and a sweep all their own. He means them, though, as seismic disturbances. The metaphor extends to their incomplete circles, jagged edges, and wildly conflicting units of measure.

His memories of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake continue on paper, but without the guides. They also take on a political history, with pretend newspapers. Amorales draws their text from anarchist writings and Zola's glorious, tragic novel of a worker's uprising, Germinal. All this could pass for a trite political lecture—or recycled formalism. And it may be both, but they transform one another. I kept coming back to the physical sensation of the rulers, variously suspended at the edge of a drawing, within its density, or in the white spaces left unfinished. It may not be anarchy or rebellion, but it is a physical disturbance all the same.

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Thornton Dial ran at Andrew Edlin through May 7, 2011, and Deborah Luster at Jack Shainman through February 5. Yoan Capote ran at Jack Shainman through November 13, 2010, and Carlos Amorales at Yvon Lambert through November 20. A related review picks up Yoan Capote in 2015.


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