Review of reviews: Art
Exhibit of the week
Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World
UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, through May 7
The exile has finally come home, said Philippe Pirotte in Artforum. For the past three decades, the Arkansas-born artist and former Native American rights activist Jimmie Durham has lived abroad, in Mexico and then Europe, presenting his itinerancy as a political gesture. During that self-imposed banishment, Durham emerged as a major international art figure, contributing witty sculptural assemblages and installations— often made from bone, stone, wood, and other found objects— to major exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale and Germany’s Documenta. Durham turned down all offers of solo shows in the U.S. for roughly 20 years. But he has now ended his boycott by allowing UCLA’s Hammer Museum to mount a career retrospective that gathers some 200 sculptures, drawings, and other works. Together, they “wryly question the Western world’s fantasies about indigenous Americans,” while challenging virtually all forms of cultural categorization.
Durham, now 76, can at least be categorized as a lifelong outsider, said Travis Diehl in The Guardian (U.K.). Born in 1940 in a Cherokee community, he worked as a political organizer for the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, lobbying the United Nations on behalf of native peoples. But by 1980, he had grown tired of infighting within the movement, and began focusing on poetry and art. Durham’s earliest sculptures “stack up the stereotypes of Native American craft—beads, shells, turquoise, skulls, and skins—as if to give the colonialist rubes what they came for.” But he was playing with those signifiers, affixing them to a police barrier in 1984’s Tlunh Datsi, and to a discarded car part in 1985’s Bedia’s Muffler. He challenged racial presumptions again with 1985’s On Loan From the Museum of the American Indian, an installation that featured such “artifacts” as an exotic dancer’s feathered panties, which were labeled as having belonged to Pocahontas. After arriving in Europe in 1994, he began throwing jabs at the whole of Western art. His small, rickety Arc de Triomphe for Personal Use (1996) is decidedly unmonumental.
“The show’s sprawling size is a bit of a drawback,” said Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. Two hundred works is too much, even for an expat artist who’s rarely seen in American museums. “Still, it’s a bracing event.” Something...Perhaps a Fugue or an Elegy, from 2005, is Durham’s “unequivocal masterpiece,” an obstacle course–style array of discarded electronics, seashells, and other objects. “Robert Rauschenberg’s rebus-like assemblages come to mind.” But so do William Harnett’s still lifes from the 1870s, in which tabletops loaded with secondhand books, tattered violins, and animal carcasses pay homage to a world about to be modernized out of existence. Durham’s collection of 21st-century detritus is just as powerful. As a new kind of “purposeful chaos” from Washington infects the world outside the gallery, “there could be no more impeccable a moment for this retrospective.” ■