I wasn’t expecting laughter and tears when I went to the Hammer Museum yesterday to see “At the Center of the World,” an exhibition of the art of Jimmie Durham. I knew little about Durham, except for some intriguing banners I’d seen around town featuring his sculpture of an Indian princess: an odd assemblage of snakeskin, feather and wood that’s disconcertingly life-like, its mismatched eyes staring, accusing. I didn’t even know the maker of Malinche was of Cherokee heritage, though that became immediately apparent in the first room, with its totem poles of animal skulls on top of sticks — clever, bizarre, strangely powerful, like the videos, drawings, sculptures, and writings filling the Hammer gallery.
Born and raised in Arkansas, Durham has been making art since the 1970s (when he was also involved in the American Indian Movement). But for the last 20 years, he has lived in Europe. This is the first show of his work since his self-imposed exile, and it’s mind-blowing. Durham, who is also a poet, can be hilariously funny and brutally dark. I repeatedly found myself laughing out loud, but I also at one point burst into tears.
I don’t even know where to begin, this show is so astounding in both its craft and content. David Hammons, Jose Bedia, Brancusi, and Fluxus are all explicit influences. I also see Judy Chicago in the cultural commentary and, again, the humor. His self-portraits, like the one above, are hilariously self-deprecating, while at the same time poking holes in cultural stereotypes – check out his “Indian penis.” Needless to say, this show is also timely and necessary, what with our liar in chief paying homage to his genocidal predecessor (Indian killer Andrew Jackson). I’m going back and I’m taking the family.