Sam Durant imbues his work with morally fraught historical narratives of the sort that, properly understood, might make for a more effectual United States citizenry. In the main gallery for this exhibition, he offered a new large-scale installation of four freestanding wooden walls that bears a title excerpted from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature”: Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world. . . . Build therefore your own world. The boards were recycled from the floor of Meeting House, an outdoor installation Durant completed in 2016 on the grounds of the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts. Built in 1770, the manse—now a National Historic Landmark—played host to thinkers and writers, including Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Passages by four contemporary African-American writers—Tisa Bryant, Danielle Legros Georges, Robin Coste Lewis, and Kevin Young—appear in vinyl lettering on the walls of Every spirit. Durant is well known for light boxes featuring the hand-lettered texts of civil-rights protest signs; the computerized font he chose to use here feels, in its stiff regularity, oddly soulless.
More effective and poignant are the three wall-mounted works (all 2016) from Durant’s “Dream Map” series that were shown in the second gallery. These works consist of prison- and military-issue wool blankets with constellations of Lincoln pennies affixed to them, reflecting the celestial guides (the North Star, Ursa Minor, Polaris) that escaping slaves used to find their way to freedom.
For Transcendental (Wheatley’s Desk, Emerson’s Chair), 2016, Durant physically intertwined replicas of Emerson’s writing chair and the desk of Phillis Wheatley, the first published female African-American poet. However, with its cartoonish forest-green and pasty beige elements crashing comically into each other, the piece is reminiscent more of Roy McMakin’s humorous furniture hybrids than of the historical relics to which it refers. Other facsimile composites include Erasure, Appearance (Garrison’s Walking Stick, Thoreau’s Pencil), 2016, wherein the writer’s tool pierces through the walking stick of self-emancipated slave Jack Garrison, and “God wills us free” (John Jack’s Epitaph, Thoreau’s Flute), 2016, a bronze version of Thoreau’s musical instrument impaling the engraved headstone of John Jack, a freed slave. The reminder of social disparity and inevitable clashes is well taken, but the repetitive combining of simple objects soon begins to feel like a contrivance, distilling complex characters to basic avatars.
Keep a Top Eye Open, Black Lives Matter (2016) reproduces a poster that originally hung in the Old Manse in the late 1700s. It warns: CAUTION!!! COLORED PEOPLE OF BOSTON. . . AVOID CONVERSING WITH THE WATCHMEN AND POLICE OFFICERS. More than two hundred years later, this language is, unfortunately, still familiar and applicable, given the high rate of police killings of unarmed black people over the last decade. Durant has said that he seeks “to make the connection between our difficult past, slavery and segregation, [and] the fact that we are still today unable to create the just society that our revolution promised.” But despite his valiant efforts to pull together disparate parts, his composite sculptures now read as metaphors for seemingly irresolvable conflicts—between Democrat and Republican, black and white, coastal and Middle American.