Conceptually rigorous and aesthetically adventuresome, Sam Durant’s work is hard to classify. Raised in Boston and now based in Los Angeles, Durant mixes the political and historical weight of the former with the seemingly fluffy yet deadly serious popular culture meanderings of the latter. His photographs, sculpture, drawings, and sound installations feverishly splice and juxtapose the disparate, finding, for instance, intriguing connections between art historian Rosalind Krauss and the tragic figure of Kurt Cobain. In a similar vein, he explores the darkly American themes of class, race, death, and the conflicts of progress in relation to such disparate figures as Huey Newton, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Smithson, Neil Young, and Miss America pageant protesters. Nevertheless, Durant’s method of free association is never without a solid aesthetic and intellectual spine holding it all together.
In his early series Chairs #1–6 (1995), Durant poses classic mid-century Eames chairs with their undersides facing up. Propped roughly against scruffy floorboards, they suggest evidence at the scene of an unspeakable crime. For some, simply being denied their accustomed reverent viewing of high modernist furniture is the crime itself, but Durant also uses this dethronement to hint at the issues of class, privilege, and unquestioned assumptions that cloud contemporary life. He continues this discussion in the outdoor bronze sculpture Direction through Indirection (Bronze Version) (2003), which features an upside-down tree trunk with gnarled and exposed roots, a recurring motif that he has investigated in a number of drawings and sculptural installations. These stumps reference a 1969 installation by Robert Smithson, a leader of the Land Art movement, at Captiva Island, Florida. However, where Smithson was concerned with theories of entropy and regeneration, Durant pulls this loaded emblem into the bloody present of continuing civil-rights struggles for African Americans and Native Americans.
As a universal symbol, the tree has manifold meanings: tree of life, tree of knowledge, family tree. In many American Indian myths, a tree marks the meeting of sky and underworld or the cosmic center of a community or household. Yet with Direction through Indirection, the stump has been uprooted, violated, and then rendered infinite by its placement on a reflective stainless-steel plate, revealing a glimmer of hope and a hint at second chances. This sculpture was developed in the context of a residency, during which Durant worked with Native American teens, and the site itself only undergirds the content. The land on which the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden sits once served as a seasonal camp for the Dakota. The uprooted tree also suggests the history of European lumber barons—including, as the artist points out, Walker Art Center founder Thomas Barlow Walker, who acquired logging rights on native lands in the 1800s, which contributed to the dislocation of Minnesota’s Native American tribes. It is in this historical context that Durant comments, “I saw turning things upside down as a kind of politicizing, a kind of acknowledgment of a world that for Native Americans is turned upside down.”1 As always, this artist powerfully captures the specific within the universally metaphoric, the political within the symbolically charged.
Sam Durant, interview with the author, August 2003 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩