Jimmie Durham (Arkansas, 1940) is an artist, writer, poet and political activist. His artistic practice rests on the attempt to deconstruct the key concepts of Western culture, dismantling stereotypes and constructs imposed by the dominant culture, so enabling the essence of the components of his works – a range of eclectic materials skillfully combined – to trigger a reflection on the status of art and reality. Working in a range of different media, such as drawing, writing, video, performance and above all sculpture, Durham orchestrates cultural symbols and pure objectpresences, in a constant dialectic between beauty and its deconstruction. After studying art in Geneva, in 1973 Durham returned to the US and became an activist of the American Indian Movement, an association supporting the rights of Native Americans. In these years he devoted himself exclusively to politics and became director of the International Indian Treaty Council and its representative at the United Nations. After a decade of intense political activity Durham moved to New York and re-engaged with the visual arts. After living for several years in Mexico, in 1994 the artist returned to Europe: this nomadic existence made the theme of the dynamism of forms, by which man responds to the most basic needs, the focus of his work, along with a critical examination of the supposed unity of individual and cultural identity.
Among the recurrent themes of Durham’s sculptural, installational and performative practice we find stone and boulders, which acquire a symbolic value or perform a plastic action. In many of his works the symbols of modernity and affluence (furnishings, refrigerators, cars or planes) appear crushed under the weight of stones and boulders, which Durham has described as references to architecture, a discipline which the artist interprets critically as a structure that deludes us we are living in stability and that, in contrast with nature, creates an order that drives us to an endless repetition of gestures and habits. In the early 90s he began to produce a series of sculptures by assembling heterogeneous materials and objects: elements scavenged from industrial sources, utensils and everyday consumer goods composed to form seemingly arbitrary structures. This series of sculptures – of which one of the earliest examples Bajo el Volcan, dated to 1990, was in the collection, as it was Un momento tranquillo, 1993 – appears as a portrait that is at the same time entropic, lyrical and critical of our contemporaneity and its multiform subconscious, in which industrial efficiency and mystery, tradition and poetry, anecdote and history, all coexist.
The work in the collection – Presepio (“Nativity”), presented at the Madre on the occasion of the 2016 Christmas holidays – respects the characteristic configuration of the traditional Neapolitan nativity scene, in which the birth of the baby Jesus is set in the contemporary city. The crèche is surrounded by numerous popular figures, whose distinctive aesthetic and formal characterization has acquired great symbolic significance over time. Figure invariably present include the redemptive fisherman, the sleeping shepherd traditionally known as Benino, and the messianic angel, set in a scenario that does not propose the characterization of the city as an anthropic space, but, as so often in his work, reproduces its vitality through the suggestions contributed by the chromatic, tactile and olfactory refinement arising out of the sculptural materials used. In this respect Durham succeeds in evoking the history of one of the most ancient craft traditions of Campania, paying homage to it, giving life to its characters and the landscape with the same materials, marble and polychrome wood, used by the earliest sculptors to depict the Nativity. At the same time he condenses into Presepio his own artistic development, likewise dominated by the use of stone and wood, on the principle that the power of a sculpture is directly derived from the potential of the material used to make it.
Durham sees stone as representing the ultimate expression of sculptural form, not by its inherent power of representation, but because each rock is a continually evolving entropic element, a static object that is potentially active. From his early periods in Europe, he found that the use of stone had been subordinated to the principles of celebratory monumentality applied by architecture and statuary, in a context in which the latter are conceived as a means to strengthen the political and religious hegemony and affirm the identity of a people. Durham feels compelled to ironically deconstruct these (pre) conceptions, rejecting the paradigmatic idea of art as monument and overturning the prominent role of stone in the history of art. In the tradition of the Eighteenth century Neapolitan crèche, the birth takes place amid columns and Roman remains in stone – an architectural structure that coincides with the representation of the principles that Durham rejects – to emphasize the advent of the Christian message emerging from the ruins of paganism.
In Durham’s Presepio the load-bearing structures are therefore made of wood instead of stone – a fragment of an olive root becomes the throbbing heart of the scene, the pivot around which all the characters are grouped in the most natural celebration of human events, a birth, which in the dazzling simplicity of its occurrence can change the fate of the world more than any other revolutionary event. Stone is present in Presepio, but set in the composition unaltered, left free to express and enrich a landscape in which its presence is not embodied in the human architectural construction but a natural element. Thus the inclusion of natural stone deconstructs the basic principles of any claim to monumental domination, while the use of wood represents the opposition between materiality and materialism.
For the artist, in fact, a piece of wood is like a holy relic, the utmost representation of the magnificence inherent in creation, capable of recounting thousands of years of history by its intrinsic properties. The extreme simplicity of a material such as wood, common at all latitudes, characterized by a versatility with a universal scope, epitomizes the miracle of nature. Whatever the artifact created in retrospect (with varying degrees of detail, with the decorativeness that distinguishes the culture from which the final object takes shape), it is the organic unity of wood as a material that conveys the essence of things.
This celebration of the universe and its creatures, is expressed in Presepio through the subtle reference to Saint Francis of Assisi, evoked by the inclusion of many small animals masterfully carved in the residues of wood rich in nuances. St. Francis, who is credited with creating the first nativity scene, not only professed the poverty of which the child Jesus was the interpreter, but he was spokesperson of humility, in the possibility for humans to nurture themselves with the beauty of every expression of the creation, understanding that the relation between wealth and poverty can be only a cultural perception, now as then. It is in the declaration of the extraordinary normality of events, in the representation of a scene of life crystallized in the adoration of a newborn baby by the poorest as well as the most powerful people in the world – significantly the Magi are of three different ages and ethnic groups, believed at the time to be representative of the global variety of humanity – while the fisherman continues to fish, the beggar asks for alms and the shepherds tend their flock.
Humanity transfigured in the characters carved by Durham in wood, stone, horn, and bronze, adorned with simple touches of color or by affixing a piece of fabric or leather to them, and the allusive setting created by the particles of nature assembled, give this Nativity scene an archaic and intimate spirituality, bringing out the artist’s ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the beauty of the world in its subtlest manifestations, seeing that the miracle can, in each of the variations attributable to it, be experienced and lived through only by those who have the humility to accept it.