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Clarity of purpose trumps didactic politics

There is little in Sam Durant’s current exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery that I would normally find interesting. It is overtly political to the point of being didactic. There is nothing especially inviting about the fabrication methods employed in preparing the work, confirming that the apparent conceptually driven proposal is just as easily grasped from reading the press release.

As that document states, “The exhibition, titled ‘Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C.,’ presents the artist’s proposal to move existing monuments commemorating massacres during the colonization of North America from their location across the country to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.”

The exhibition is a grand illustration of the obvious––that there are more and bigger monuments commemorating the dead white men who fell, than there are monuments to the Native Americans they massacred. And yet, as much as it would be convenient to dismiss this exhibition for all the reasons stated above, it is impossible.

Durant’s clarity of purpose seems wonderfully out of step with a clamor of stylish, quasi-political iterations found scattered about just blocks away. The artist presents sound evidence illustrating a verifiable fact of injustice. The proof itself becomes increasingly compelling, nearly unbelievable. How seldom are we invited these days out of the murky glee of ambiguity to see a political truth made real through art? The white man’s monuments are so big and are so many in number. The Native American monuments are so few, and when imagined next to the Washington Monument, so puny.

Pacing through the Paula Cooper Gallery turned tidy graveyard, Durant’s proposal soon becomes not the point of the work, but the platform. Once in and among the many full-scale monuments, one is either transported to a dense 19th century cemetery, or a funereal showroom, depending on your powers of projection. In either case, it is a seduction that is as sweet as it is disturbing.

And all at once one is made aware of contemporary resonances with Durant’s subject. A predictable list of present day political conditions stream through one’s consciousness. White people colonizing the globe while erecting sky-piercing monuments to themselves––does this sound familiar?

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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