This article considers the problem of ironic subjectivity and materiality in the work of Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham. Durham's self-consciously rough sculptures were instrumental in promoting irony as a viable strategy for both the creation and interpretation of Native American art in the 1980s and 1990s. His more recent work continues this exploration of irony but refuses to provide the kind of knowable humanist subject that dominant art criticism both disavows and craves in indigenous art. This essay examines these ambivalences in light of Durham's own understanding of the function of the carpenter, one of many jobs he took to support himself before gaining prominence as an artist. It argues that Durham's ongoing ambivalence about irony, representation, identity, and materiality is an inevitable consequence of trying to translate the complex Cherokee idea of carpentry into a contemporary art context. The comparison of the “postmodern savage” series entitled the Caliban Codex, part of an exhibition mounted at the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in New York City (1992), with more recent work exhibited at the Western Front Gallery in Vancouver (2006) reveals how Durham continues to vex the simple construction of the indigenous artist as a clever or knowable other. As a carpenter who fixes, joins together, and must confront people and things, Durham forces himself to utilize his own ambivalence about representation in the service of liberation.
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Rob Appleford; Jimmie Durham and the Carpentry of Ambivalence. Social Text 1 December 2010; 28 (4 (105)): 91–111. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-2010-012
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