“I am poor and I am naked, but I am the chief of the nation”
Red Cloud, Oglala Lakota Sioux
The Hammer Museum has mounted a massive, sprawling and entertaining retrospective (the first in North America) of the multi-faceted sculptor, poet and activist Jimmie Durham. He is little known in the United States since moving abroad 30 years ago. In 1990 the United States government passed the Indian Arts and Craft Act requiring Indian artists to register in order to protect the consumer. Durham refused to register and wrote the following tongue in cheek statement:
I am a full – blooded contemporary artist, of the subgroup (or clan) called sculptors. I am not American Indian, nor have I ever seen or sworn loyalty to India. I am not a Native ‘American’, nor do I feel that ‘America’ has any right to either name me or un-name me. I have previously stated that I should be considered mixed blood; that is, I claim to be male but in fact only one of my parents was male.
Clearly, this statement displays Durham’s quick wit and cleverness, even as he makes a number of serious points. The wonderful twist of the last line is reminiscent of the same technique that O’Henry used in his memorable short stories. However much Durham seems to “protest” the Native American appellation, he does use the artistic vernacular of his culture (i.e. animal skulls, skins, fur, beads, and feathers). However, a prolonged examination of his enormous output demonstrates Durham’s ability to mix the supposed naïve qualities of folk art with his canny, text-based conceptual constructs.
In his endearing and wildly funny “Self–portrait” (1986, canvas, cedar acrylic paint, metal, synthetic hair, scrap fur, dyed chicken feathers, human rib bones, sheep bones, sea shell, thread), Durham presents a simple life-sized contour (the kind kids do in kindergarten when they trace their bodies), filled in with coppery brown paint and filled with hand written statements, observations and commentary. Noteworthy is the incandescent, rainbow-hued plastic penis next to the words “Indian penises are unusually large and colorful.” The artist literally introduces himself with this piece, which lists his hobbies, his possible drug and alcohol problem, his scars and (my personal favorite) a bent arrow, which reads “useless nipple” pointing crookedly at the offending body part. His “hands are small and sensitive” reads another section. The face is painted (a nod to war paint) with a large seashell ear and animal fur for hair. The chest near the heart has been ripped open, allowing the viewer to peer inside to see yellow feathers and some wood. “I am basically light- hearted” is the accompanying text. Near the bottom is this pointed comment, “My skin is not really this dark, But (sic) I am sure that many Indians have coppery skins.” While you are chuckling, you realize just how skillful Durham is in creating this “naked” savage with an obvious poetic soul and tremendous honesty and depth.
Nearby there is a solemn grouping of seven fairly stark stick-figure sculptures from Durham’s 1991 solo exhibition in San Francisco (entitled “John Rollin, Zorro and the Joad Family Players”). This piece conflates the stories of the itinerant Joads of “Grapes of Wrath” fame with various Indian and Mexican characters from literature and myth. Each sculpture has a structure, which mimics the body with some cast-off item representing the head, attached to a pole or a stick (the body or spine) and ending in what looks surprisingly like the bottom of a painting easel. The respective “heads” are made of armadillo, Iguana and skunk skulls. The most literal and poignant piece here has a simplified but clearly human painted paper-mache head perched atop a torn dirtied white dress shirt with a crooked collar and a skewed tie; making this look like a scarecrow dressed up with no place to go. This ragtag grouping of seven figures faces the viewer like a silent Greek chorus observing us as we observe them.
Perhaps seven is a magic number for Durham as the number appears in text as well. Nearby on the wall is a simple line drawing of a tree (which appears to be expelling a breath) with the words “The Center of the World.” There is a story with the image, which goes on to discuss sacred trees and where they exist. Durham then says:
Most people know by now that the sacred Ahuahuete Tree at Chalma stands at the center of the world. The giant magnolia tree in Arkansas, however, is obviously the prime marker for the center of the world, and Ireland’s Yew Tree is rightly seen as the center of the world.
Be warned, therefore, that a moveable pole cannot support the center of the world, only trees can. Do Not Follow someone else’s umbilical cord.
There are seven continents. Each has seven sacred trees. (maybe more and I’m not sure what happens on all the smaller islands.) Find one that you like and place your own umbilical cord or its equivalency among the tree’s branches. Do not salute.
This last admonition is so wry that it brings the viewer back suddenly from poetry and myth to reality.
Sophisticated wordplay and visual puns are apparent in almost all the work-whether two dimensional or small wall sculptures like “The Arrogant Little Peasant” (1989 Carved ash, jute string, metal, ink on paper, pigeon feathers, elm branch, acrylic paint). The ironic and funny hand-printed tag affixed to the elm branch limb reads: “The Arrogant Little Peasant Finding Himself Out On A Limb, Decided To Sprout Wings And Fly Away.” Here Durham is mixing the literal (the little guy is actually on a tree limb) with the metaphorical. The small wooden carved man is painted red, including his hat. One eye is white and one is blue. And the face is divided down the middle (right brain, left brain?) with one part painted red, the other brown. The piece is very linear, held together by a cord that creates a triangular sail-like enclosure. This strangely delicate sculpture seems more like a three- dimensional drawing than a sculpture as it is very ethereal and seems light as air.
“New Clear Family” (1989 tree branches, carved wood, cotton cloth, leather, twine, string, beads, acrylic paint, metal) was made after Durham moved with his wife to Cuernavaca, Mexico. The title is a pun on “nuclear family,” which is defined as a family group of mother, father and children. Durham’s family is composed of nineteen females and one male at the top of the group, begging the question — is this a harem or an extended family? The figures are composed of Durham’s hallmark humble materials with wrapped painted twigs for bodies, twine for hair. Each doll has a simplified painted face with exaggerated eyes and every lash denunciated. There are four unusual dolls, each with a gold, metallic face and more attention paid to clothes and occasionally even bejeweled with beads. These look like the toys that indigenous people might make for their children.
The depth of literature, mythology and art historical knowledge that Durham possesses is readily apparent in most of his work. One of my favorite series is the installation entitled “The Dangers of Petrification II” (1998-2007 wood and glass vitrines with objects, stones, twine, knives, spoon, four ceramic plates, ceramic bowl, three wood chopping boards, ink on paper). Fabulously inventive, Durham has found rocks that look like petrified food items. Presented in a glass case with hand-lettered signs, the piece feels like some tacky museum exhibit or some dusty museum case in a funky roadside store selling trinkets. My personal favorites are “petrified chocolate cake” and “petrified ice cream”! The excellent curatorial text accompanying this installation says the “work points to the “dangers of presuming to understand a culture through its most sacred objects…”.
Durham’s sense of play is apparent with the deadpan wall sculpture “Types of Pipes by Magritte” (1993 copper, plastic, wood, ink on board). Readers will no doubt remember Magritte’s iconic painting of a pipe, entitled “The treachery of Images,” with the text “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe). Durham’s version looks like a badly installed science project or a hardware store wall with the pipes stuck to a board. The word “pipes” is printed crookedly on top, and it is signed Rene Magritte. Considering all the treaties that were consecrated solemnly with the peace pipe, this piece has a subtle second cultural and historical layer.
Another piece rife with art historical references (and there are many such works grouped together in this part of the exhibit) is the Anti-Brancusi work from 2005. There is a note attached to a stick which reads:
….This stone is from the river Pi, which some think is the real heart of Italy.
….It looks like a foot, doesn’t it? Or a shoe.
It has about the same size as many of Constantin Brancusi’s bird sculptures, and has a similar graceful shape. (I was going to say ‘graceful form’, but ‘graceful shape’ makes a rhyme.)
….But a foot or shoe is far from a bird. And since this stone was formed by the river instead of made by an artist, it seems to be an anti-Brancusi.
….(Even though as a poor young artist Brancusi walked from his home in
Romania to Paris, on the Seine River.)
….This kind of stone is called Serpentine. Isn’t that a nice name for a stone?
Perched atop several cardboard boxes (shoe boxes and in a nod to Marcel Duchamp, a box containing a urinal) is the black rock vaguely resembling the foot.
Behind it attached to the wall is a separate piece that uses the urinal (now broken) that presumably came in that box. It is entitled “Homage to David Hammons” (1987, Porcelain, stone, PVC). Hammons is an African-American artist whose mixed-media work speaks to the plight and experience of the Black American.
There is another cheeky sculpture entitled “Hommage a Filliou (A Piece of Wood Sculpted by a Dog, Painted by a Human, A Piece of Wood Sculpted by a Machine, Painted by a Human) (2003 Pine, purpurin dye, acrylic paint, ink). Robert Fillion is a French Fluxus artist who was part of an international group of experimental artists in the nineteen sixties and seventies who were notoriously ant-art and anti-materialistic. A milled piece of wood painted gold is unceremoniously plunked down right near driftwood chewed by a dog and then painted gold. In the manner of an amateur science exhibit, there is a hand-lettered label – the same as the title. Once again Durham humorously examines and contrasts “art” created by man (purposeful) and nature (accidental) while questioning how society judges and values art. This work and others like it also skewer museum installations, signage and cultural assumptions.
Language is central to Durham’s vast oeuvre as he wields words as expertly as he mixes media. He has a large body of two-dimensional ink drawings here which employ simply scrawled black ink or charcoal text on white paper. Philosophical in nature, the words are carefully placed on the page to read like poems. Two of my favorites are the perplexing: “Language is a tool for communication like a city or a brain.” and the sweetly resigned “Humanity is a work in Progress” with a barcode in the corner. Durham is a consummate and masterful artist able to turn humble materials and found objects into profound meditations on art, life, status, consumerism and culture. Long overdue, this comprehensive retrospective brings this artist the attention he so richly deserves while enlightening and enchanting the viewer.
Nancy Kay Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.