Since the early 1990s, Jimmie Durham has had a sticky relationship with the art world. Both tokenized as a Native American artist and marginalized because of his race, Durham makes work about racism, the history of the readymade, and discrimination, and it has been generated polarized responses. Now the subject of a major survey at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (it will travel later this year to the Whitney Museum in New York), his sculptures and installations continue to provoke debate. Below are excerpts from the ARTnews archives that track Durham’s career, from the time he declined an interview request, believing that he had been pigeonholed as a Native American artist, to a review of a recent show at Berlin’s Neuer Berliner Kunstverein.
“Native American Art: Pride and Prejudice”
By Robin Cembalest
“If Michael Tracy uses icons, he’s part of the postmodern debate. If Jimmie does, he’s considered primitive, ethnic, an ‘Indian artist,’ ” says Jeanette Ingberman, who runs Exit Art, an alternative space in New York, referring to Jimmie Durham, an artist of Cherokee heritage who shows there. “When the so-called mainstream does the history of the found object, from Duchamp to Haim Steinbach, they don’t include Jimmie.”
Durham responded to a request to be interviewed with his own request—not to be mentioned in it. “He is a contemporary artist and should be discussed with the critical, conceptual, and intellectual dialogue being generated by issues surrounding international contemporary art,” a letter from his dealer, Nicole Klagsbrun, said.
“Jimmie Durham at L.A. Louver”
By Suzanne Muchnic
At [this] exhibition, called “Various Gates and Escape Routes,” visitors walked through Forbidden Things, a bogus metal detector similar to one Durham had seen in a bus station in Mexico, where he lives. The makeshift door frame detected nothing, and three signs above the door that ostensibly pointed out prohibited objects were purposefully unclear. The piece did its job setting up an ambience of ominous nonsense. It seems that Durham—a Cherokee artist, poet, performer, and activist whose work was included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial and the 1992 Documenta—likes nothing better than to inject tough subjects with a jolt of ironic humor.
For this installations, Durham built a pseudo–slot machine with an ax for a handle, attached rearview mirrors to the ends of a tree branch, stuck a wax-covered dog skull on a length of PVC pipe, and bolted a starched blue shirt to a wall. An artist whose strength is his refusal to separate art from life, Durham combined the flotsam of nature and culture. The result was an art of powerfully engaged estrangement.
By Howardena Pindell
There’s a Native American artist named Jimmie Durham. His work is wonderful. You’ll see him in a show now and then, but it’s as if he’s in the margins. I chalk that up to racism, which is so endemic in the art world. You rarely hear about Native American artists being included in anything. Durham reminds me of Joseph Beuys—that kind of deeply serious work that’s also really on the edge. When you read the work, it’s like he’s inventing a whole new language.
“Jimmie Durham at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein”
By Jordan Troeller
Durham’s solo show at NBK, “Here at the Center,” presented works completed since his move across the Atlantic, some of which were made in collaboration with the Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves. These include the co-authored video Grunewald (2006), which was filmed in the eponymous Berlin forest and which displaces the sounds of birdcalls onto human figures blowing whistles.
Exploring sounds, scents, and textures, Durham engages with Europe’s landscape, but from a self-consciously “foreign” perspective. Eurasia, A Scent (1997), for instance, consists of a sawhorse supporting a glass bottle of perfume that Durham made from black walnuts he had found in Siberia, and which, he said, reminded him of his childhood in North America. While the show also included a series of photographs of Durham in different locations in Europe, the non-figurative works on view engaged even more so with self-portraiture and with the challenge of recognizing oneself in the encounter with difference.