Where art and nature intersect used to be a contested ground. With the familiarity of sculpture as found-object assemblage, the junction has become an undifferentiated confluence. Jimmie Durham’s exhibition of six recent works at Sprovieri not only sought to reactivate the tension which used to charge that intersection, it did so with an irony suggesting such distinctions are part of a culture we have lost. Combining and contrasting diverse sculptural registers—the functional, the found, the carved, the modeled—the show emphasized the contingency of each mode and its place on a relativistic spectrum in which none is paramount. The irony arises as these registers are combined into a conceit distantly evolved from traditional figure sculpture, as if contemporary sculpture’s spectrum of modes was made to coalesce into the more holistic form out of which it evolved, back when art and nature knew their places.
Long Hope (2012) is an olive-tree trunk placed on the gallery floor. It is unmodified nature except for the carving of some of its surfaces to flat planes, as if geometric art had been summarily superimposed onto a natural base. It might demonstrate how its artificial modification automatically introduces a representational dimension, making the trunk’s branches resemble a gnarled hand twisting in the air. The other five works are composed of man-made and natural elements, in vertical, totemic configurations. The Forest Prime (2012) has blocks of hewn timber stacked on a varnished wooden table. The contrast between function and its denial is partially effaced by both elements being made of wood, and by a branch attached to a table leg, fudging its functionality. The table also resembles a plinth on which the art has been placed, a reading that suggests another dialectic—between the defined function of the base and the geometric abstraction of the timber, as though a Brancusi or Andre sculpture were supported by the base of a petit-bourgeois hat stand.
But step back, and the sculpture has the awkwardly specific posture of a standing figure, with the walnut branch as its arm, or a wielded weapon. The table legs have carved paw feet, converting the sculpture’s putative constructivism into the irony of illustration. In two of the works, the table is replaced by a piece of old industrial machinery with legs and a pedal contraption invoking an absent worker’s foot. Although the other stands are wooden, they appear closer to the industrial parts—in their having been fabricated—than to the raw timber. Durham juggles abstract (with its oblique, metaphorical relation to the figure) and figurative sculptural languages, as well as natural and man-made forms, and gauges the distances between them.
It Should Work (2012) juxtaposes two types of figural metaphor. A section of an olive tree with a knot in its middle has been fixed onto the top of a pedaled stand. If the pedal connotes a foot by association with its function, the large, round knot resembles a face by a form of primal, morphological semblance. The two conceits jar, and are only reconciled by our reflexive reading of the heterogeneous parts of the sculpture as conforming to the relational dynamics of a figure, with the metal stand as its legs, and the olive trunk as the upper body with its facial focal point. By highlighting the arbitrariness of our reconciliation of these incompatible elements, and consequently our subservience to an entrenched cultural trope, Durham celebrates the subliminal power of representational art’s hold over our perceptions, at the same time as doing everything he can to subvert it.