Thornton Dial, “Stars of Everything”, 2004.  Photo credit:  Souls Grown Deep

Today I’m highlighting an artist I wrote about for my second site TONDI.

TONDI hosts digital exhibitions and explores broader social themes relating to contemporary art, music and design.  I recently wrote a piece about Thornton Dial that was a commentary on how arts writers categorized him as an artist, but for purposes of this post, I’ll keep it simple.  His work was amazing.  An excerpt from the post:

“Dial’s career spanned 30 years and included numerous solo shows in New York galleries.  He was featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, had a major retrospective at the IMA, and museums including the Met, the MFA Houston and the American Folk Art Museum include his work in their collections.

To me what was interesting about Thornton Dial was that his artistic career began when his first career ended.  Dial was a railroad car metal fabricator at the Pullman Standard plant in Birmingham, Alabama.  In his spare time he collected and repurposed objects into “things” that he never considered art.  He pursued his creative practice full time after the Pullman plant closed, and when his work caught the attention of a prominent collector in Atlanta, Dial’s artistic career began to take off.

His work has roots in African visual and oral traditions that were transformed to withstand the oppression of slavery and Jim Crow. Some of these artistic and cultural mediums include quilting, southern yard art and collage.”

Thornton Dial’s art is a beautiful representation of a southern tradition of expression and communication with a story and history that continues to unfold.


For more on Thornton Dial


For more info on southern Yard Art







Yashua Klos, “Face on Plane with BWA Mask Angels”, paper constructions of oil based ink on wood block prints, 2015.  Photo Credit:  Papillion Art

In his current exhibition, “How to Hide in the Wind”, Yashua Klos uses collage and printmaking to transform abstracted pieces of printed paper into figurative profiles.  His subjects take on a three dimensional quality as they physically emerge through wood blocks revealing one external image while concealing fragments of themselves left behind.  This visual representation of code switching demonstrates its power to protect people who navigate different environments in their daily lives.  However, this careful control over perception and identity is a fragile construct that may expose one’s vulnerabilities.

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Yashua Klos, “Once You Could Fly”, paper constructions of oil based ink on wood block prints, 2015. @ Papillion Art

In “Once You Could Fly” we see an image of a man without his protective barrier, exposing the contents of his core.  Whether that reveal was predicated by choice or circumstance, like an exposed fusilage of an airplane, the man appears to be in freefall.

Social commentary and the specter of police brutality are indirectly expressed in Klos’ work in two ways: survival and the deconstruction of the body.  His paintings reflect the subject’s process of transforming abstracted bits of their past, their environment and their identity to form who they are and how they navigate society.  This process of transformation, Klos’ personal experiences with police brutality as a youth in the South Side of Chicago and our continued struggles with systemic violence were discussed in a 2015 Modern Painter’s interview.

“We’re all trying to navigate our own tolerance of this oppression, and knowing that this violence against us is always looming. We have to exist, we have to survive, we have to go on and be happy. But we always know it’s there. It might, in some ways, numb me. These are very hard feelings to deal with. And there’s a part of me that just wants to shut down and retreat, like this is not happening — but I know it is happening, I know it’s been happening. We can’t move on until we’ve confronted this, until we’ve figured out how to resist it, until we’ve dealt with it. It’s been hard.”  

Yashua Klos, “How to Hide in the Wind” is a solo exhibition currently at Papilliion Art and runs until March 6, 2016.

4336 Degnan Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90008

The graphics were bold, the symbolism was strong and the messages were provocative.  Emory Douglas’ graphic design work became the visual voice of movement dedicated to the fight for civil rights and social justice.  As the “Minister of Culture” for the Black Panther Party, Emory Douglas used punchy printmaking to tell captivatingly strong stories that depicted the urgency and tension behind the Black Power movement.


Photo Credit:  Graphic Arts News

Douglas studied graphic design while at San Francisco City College where he was one of 2 African American students in his program.  He created the Black Panther Newspaper along with Eldridge Cleaver with a mission to carefully control and distribute the message of the Black Panther Party.  His graphic style and ability to elicit an emotional response in the viewer were techniques that are emulated by artists like Shepard Fairey today.  In 2015 Emory Douglas became an AIGA medalist recognized among design peers for his “powerful use of graphic design in the Black Panther party’s struggle for civil rights and against racism, oppression, and social injustice.”


Photo Credit:  Whitehot Magazine

On the power of graphic design in storytelling, Douglass believes that “art has relevancy, whether it’s to pacify you or enlighten you and inform you. It’s a language, that’s the power of it.”





“Christmas Morning”, 1933, James Van Der Zee  Photo Credit: Studio Museum 

James Van Der Zee was a prolific photographer documenting Harlem in the 1920’s and 1930’s with work that earned him the unofficial title of “Photographer of the Harlem Renaissance.”  With a mission to highlight middle class life, his work featured portraits of black New Yorkers, showing a side of life that was virtually invisible outside the African American community.  He was very deliberate in creating a clear, consistent narrative of success and wealth in his portraits. Van Der Zee opened his first photography studio with his first wife in 1916 and he saw commercial success doing elaborate portrait work through the early 1940’s.

What is amazing about his career was that he was relatively unknown in critical photography circles, but that changed in 1969 when at the age of 83 his work was featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial”Harlem on My Mind” exhibition.  His critical success dovetailed with his unfortunate commercial decline as economic challenges forced him to lose control over much of his work.  He saw a resurgence in his career in the late 1970’s when a renewed interest in commissioned portrait work found a home with publishers.


Jean Michel Basquiat Portrait by James Van Der Zee, 1981.  Photo Credit:  Jeff Curto, History of Photography Podcast

This portrait of a 21 year old Jean Michel Basquiat was shot by Van Der Zee when he was 95 years old.  His work is a testament to his love for his art, his dedication to his craft, an allegiance to his mission and pride in his purpose.


Njideka Akunyili Crosby, “I Refuse to be Invisible”, Ink, charcoal, acrylic and xerox transfers on paper, 2010.  From the artist’s solo show at the Hammer in 2015.

“Ask the ‘Why’, it’s not enough to say ‘it’s beautiful.’ “~Njideka Akunyili Crosby

“Beautiful” is exactly how I described Crosby’s show at the Hammer in November.  There are so many layers to her work it’s hard to focus on one aspect of it.  I now realize that in many ways that is the point.  On the surface her paintings feature a tableau of familial imagery highlighting ebony hued portraits with opaque features that are simultaneously etherial and earthly.  Then you notice the eyes…  They encourage a closer view.  Once you look more closely at her paintings you discover a hidden tapestry of collaged photos and print images that tell a more nuanced story.  That shift in perception is facilitated by the portraits themselves and is a technique that is evident in much of her work.  Ultimately, the collage tells the story that the eyes beckon the viewer to see.  It is as if the subjects say, “I could tell you, but let me show you.”


That experience is very much intentional.  Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s background as a Nigerian born artist coming of age in the states plays an important role in both the style and meaning behind her work.  Crosby’s paintings represent the duality between the socio-political complexities of post colonial Nigeria and her inherited cultural influences.  Crosby’s work is rooted in 3rd space theory which posits that when two distinct spaces exist, a third space is formed at the point of interaction between the two separate spaces.  This dynamic has cultural, social, economic and political manifestations, and in Crosby’s work her process mirrors the context.  Her use of acrylics and collage within individual paintings reflect the point of intersection between the cultures represented in her work.  The process of transformation experienced by the viewer who ultimately sees this complexity within the work, demonstrates yet another dimension of 3rd space theory.

Crosby’s description of Georges Seurat’s “Embroidery” in this video by the Met describes this transformation  It also helped me understand the importance of painstaking detail and how his process influenced her own practice of creating work that is so much more than beautiful.


The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.  



“The Eclipse”, 1970, Alma Thomas.  Photo c/o the Smithsonian American Art Museum


Alma Thomas is the first African American woman to have her work displayed within public spaces in the White House.  The 2015 addition of her painting, “Resurrection”, (1966) represents the Obamas aesthetic preference for contemporary and injected modern works into the otherwise traditional permanent collection.  Thomas’ work joined those of Mark Rothko, Sam Francis and Robert Rauschenberg which were all selected to grace the Obama’s White House collection.

The artist’s work was inspired by New York School Abstract Expressionism which emphasized dynamic, energetic gestures, however Alma Thomas’ paintings also have an objective, cerebral focus on movement, light, color and sound characteristic of Impressionism.  Because her work fused the two schools of painting, Thomas’ work could easily be described as “Abstract Impressionism”, a term coined by Elaine de Kooning that represents a method that evokes an artist’s emotion and expresses “lyrical and thoughtful qualities in paintings.”


“Spring Grass”, 1973, Alma Thomas.  Photo c/o Smithsonian American Art Museum 

Thomas’ career was prolific in the 1960s, a period that posed many challenges for her as a black woman artist.  Rather than focus on identity, she chose to paint musical representations of harmonies found in nature. The inspiration for many of Alma Thomas’ paintings was found in the garden of her Washington D.C. home where she spent time “watching the leaves and flowers tossing in the wind as though they were singing and dancing.”


“Atmospheric Effects”1970, Alma Thomas. Photo c/o Smithsonian American Art Museum

The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.  







Early Daguerrotype of Frederick Douglass c. 1841. Photo c/o Zocalo Public Square & the Collection of Greg French

In 2015 I embarked on a journey to highlight artists of color during Black History Month and I am happy to bring this important feature back to Culture Shock Art.  Instead of the longer theoretical essays  I currently explore on TONDI, this February I will explore one artist, artistic medium or art movement each day during February.  Both 2015 and 2016 “challenges” kicked off with the 2/1 Google Doodle, but in this post I want to share an interesting, important fact about Frederick Douglass.


The legendary activist, abolitionist and writer was an avid fan of photography and he embraced early forms of the process as a potent vehicle to shape visual messages.  He not only used early photography to shape his personal brand, he also saw the value of the medium to redeem, redefine and destroy stereotypes.  Douglass was keenly aware of the damaging psychological scars left by exagerated caricatures prevalent in illustrations of African Americans.  He felt that photography had the power to democratize and “offered a ‘right vision’ which might undermine slavery”.
“A Very pleasing feature of our pictorial relations is the very easy terms upon which all may enjoy them. The servant girl can now see a likeness of herself, such as noble ladies and even royalty itself could not purchase fifty years ago. Formerly, the luxury of a likeness was the exclusive privilege of the rich and great. But now, like education and a thousand other blessings brought to us by the advancing march of civilization, such pictures, are placed within easy reach of the humblest members of society.” Frederick Douglass, “Pictures and Progress”, 1863.


Image Credit, Zocalo Public Square

Frederick Douglass immediately embraced early Daguerrotypes as self portraits and used them as important calling cards that helped manage his public image.  This was a key strategic technique that complimented his visibility and notoriety for his work in the abolitionist movement.

For more on rare Daguerrotypes of Frederick Douglass, check out this video by the University of Rochester.





The Artist a Day Challenge celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.  


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