historical concerns, and the art of her Native American colleagues.
Over the course of her career Smith has founded two artists' groups, the Coup Marks Coop and Grey Canyon Artists, and curated numerous exhibitions, including "Our Land/Ourselves" (1991) and "We the Human Beings" (1992-93), organized respectively by the University Art Gallery, State University of New York, Albany, and the College of Wooster Art Museum in Wooster, Ohio.
Motivating and unifying most of her efforts is an overriding concern for the deterioration of the environment and the preservation of Native American cultures.
However, it is Smith's artistic effort that promises to be most enduring and efficacious. It appeals to audiences from the Flathead Reservation in Montana, where she is a registered member, to museums and art galleries in metropolitan centers across the United States.
Through her prints, drawings, mixed-media collages, and paintings, Smith parlays her need to speak out against basic injustice into aesthetic experiences that raise the consciousness of others.
According to curator Trinkett Clark, Smith is "a harbinger, a mediator and a bridge builder."2 In a 1992 interview with Clark, the artist stated, "I go from one community with messages to the other and I try to teach and enlighten people. My paintings and drawings are part of the conduit. They are my voice."3 In a contemporary art world rife with petty squabbles, economic and political misgivings, Smith is a healing presence. Even though her work has been steadily acquired by private collectors and public institutions since the early 1970s, and even though much of her earnings is given to social causes, educational projects, and Indian reservations, she staunchly opposes steep increases in her art prices. Her tempered interest in economic advancement and the shrewd dealings of the art world, however, are the most basic and easily measured of her virtues.
I go from one community with messages to the other and I try to teach and enlighten people. My paintings and drawings are part of the conduit. They are my voice.
Smith was originally trained in the late 1950s as an Abstract Expressionist, a style often extolled for its unwavering pursuit of the existential self. Since that time, she has been cultivating more apposite means for articulating the fullness of her life's experiences, without sacrificing the needs of the world and the people who have made them so richly rewarding. The irony of having transformed an ostensibly self-centered style of painting into one that emphatically transcends the illusion of the artist as autonomous and isolated should not be underemphasized. Smith has the rare ability to see the big picture, to conceive of herself and her place within the world's various social, political, and environmental matrixes, holistically.
"We are a part of the earth and it is a part of us."4
This quotation is from an 1854 speech by Chief Seattle, the Duwamish tribe leader who was forced to negotiate the Port Elliott Treaty of 1855 that sold to the U.S. government native claims to northwestern ancestral territory. In his speech, which has been a perennial source of inspiration for Smith, Seattle warned Native Americans and Westerners alike against Euro-American belief systems that ignore the plenitude and inherent value of undisturbed nature.5
Smith has the rare ability to see the big picture, to conceive of herself and her place within the world's various social, political, and environmental matrixes, holistically.
One work from the series, Cornfield, condemns commercial disregard for nature by means of an aesthetic that prompts viewers to envision spiritual strength beyond the deplorable physical abuse. The image of a cornfield, rich with greens and yellows, and the hingeless door on which it is painted together invoke a conceptual dissonance. The tension caused by the juxtaposition of the mass-produced architectural element and the romanticized, painterly vision offers viewers the possibility of transport beyond the basics of a door and a cornfield. For Smith, undisturbed nature is not only a perfect, complete end in itself, but a means to greater spiritual understanding. By contemplating what is represented on the surface of the portal, viewers may discover a metaphorical way through to the other side, that is, a way of gaining insight into the natural mysteries they hold dear and integral to their being.
Corn, or maize -- central to many Native Americans' diets and rituals -- holds specific value for Smith as a spiritual metaphor. In a separate panel installed to the left of the cornfield-painted door the artist presents aggressively overpainted Cracker Jack boxes. In relation to the cornfield, these boxes -- erstwhile containers of thoroughly processed corn-type candy food -- are objects of disdain.
"We are a part of the earth and it is a part of us." -- Chief Seattle, 1854
Smith has been influenced not only by the inwardly focused members of the New York School, but also by artists who have bridged what is frequently construed as the gap between the world of art and the world outside. Like Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters, Smith culls litter from her backyard and the streets of places she frequents, incorporating it into her work. Often she clips articles and photographs from newspapers and periodicals -- slices of life that serve as literal and material springboards for incantations to a spiritualized ecosystem of which human beings are but a small part.
The two large paintings exhibited in "American Kaleidoscope," Trade (gifts for trading land with white people) and Genesis, exemplify Smith's technique of using found elements, as well as her most recently evolved style of painting.
For Smith, undisturbed nature is not only a perfect, complete end in itself, but a means to greater spiritual understanding.
Smith's work has always been about the land; her paintings have always been landscapes:
I think of my work as an inhabited landscape, never static or empty. Euro-Americans see broad expanses of land as vast, empty spaces. Indian people see all land as a living entity. The wind ruffles; ants crawl; a rabbit burrows. I've been working with that idea for probably twenty years now.6
Because of their journalistic and painterly attributes, one could fairly describe Trade and Genesis as literal abstractions. But the expectations caused by naming them "landscapes" or, as critic Lucy Lippard has written about other works by Smith, "narrative landscapes" are central to their overall significance.7
Profound as the content may be, it is the work's formal apparatus, the way in which it locates value in industrial waste, that achieves its spiritual resonance.
When confronted with Smith's abstractions, the viewer can satisfy the expectations associated with more typical landscape painting by changing how he or she perceives rather than what is being perceived. The life of the land is manifest in everything, from rocks to foliage to the animals and people that roam its surface. Learning to value these things as integral parts of the whole without feeling the need to build upon, develop, or annihilate them is a matter of shifting one's cultural perspective. Smith's self-appointed task is to create visual and conceptual links between what Euro-Americans initially fail to see in the land and what the land has always been and needs to be if all the earth's inhabitants are to survive. It is a matter of learning to understand the world with the help of Native American perspicacity.
In Trade, one literally can read about everything from shawl-making classes to stories of toxic contaminants and bacteria affecting the local environment. There is a flyer for the "2nd Annual Flathead Reservation Culture Fair," as well as cartoon images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Charlie Brown, and Garfield the cat.
Euro-Americans see broad expanses of land as vast, empty spaces. Indian people see all land as a living entity. The wind ruffles; ants crawl; a rabbit burrows.
Consisting of newspaper articles overlaying fabric swatches overlaying photocopied illustrations, Trade and Genesis evoke the complexity of a palimpsest, the earlier manuscripts of which were never erased. With the passage of time in the studio, alluded to by the drips of paint that run down the surface of the canvas, collage elements and paint occlude underlayers of narrative and landscape. Only glimpses of the paintings' pasts -- literally and uratively -- show through. Genesis and Trade help us to reflect upon the spiritual and life-affirming constancy of the land. They also, like the earth itself, with its layers of geological time, and its civilizations built upon civilizations, are examples of that continuum.
In the center of both Trade and Genesis, Smith offers for consideration a single icon of the mythical American frontier. In Trade, the artist depicts a canoe; in Genesis, a buffalo. Like the corn in Cornfield, the canoe and buffalo hold symbolic and spiritual meanings. From a sympathetic point of view, they project a static, monumental significance, evocative of the awesome power of nature and those who live in harmony with it.
The stories hidden within [Smith's paintings] are visible only to those who know how to see the life in the arid "empty" landscape itself.
Smith addresses the more sinister aspects of the historical barter deals invoked by Trade by including one-ounce bottles of liquor in the hanging array of toys, plastic knickknacks, and bumper stickers -- small reminders of a U.S. government that profited from substance abuse and addiction. We have only to look at the pasted-on reproduction of George Catlin's Pigeon's Egg Head (The Light) going to and returning from Washington, a painting in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, to see a nineteenth-century view of an Indian, impressed with the souvenirs of his trip to Washington, returning home with bottles of alcohol in his pockets.
Genesis and Trade. . .
like the earth itself, with its layers of geological time, and its civilizations built upon civilizations, are examples of that continuum.
According to the artist, the nimble play with words and images demonstrated in works like Trade and Genesis is the result of "a coyote sense of humor."9 Like the mythic cultural figures Esu-Elegbara of the Yoruba, Echu-Elegua of Cuba, and the Signifying Monkey of African Americans, the Coyote is the Native American trickster figure.10 In Genesis, Smith introduces viewers to Coyote, not only the coy magician of the Native American imagination but also the creator of her tribe. Her rendition of the Native American creation myth includes at the bottom of the canvas the statement "In the beginning Amotken created Coyote and assigned to him the welfare of," an open-ended verbal analogue of her visual imagery that constantly shifts in meaning.
However, it is in Trade that Coyote's cleverness is most outspoken. According to the artist, Trade may carry "a load of serious information," but it also makes its point with humor.11 The plastic-beaded belts and tomahawks, the sports souvenirs of the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, and Florida State Seminoles, and the cowboys-and-Indians toy doll set are trinkets Smith would like to offer back to white people for the land Indians once traded away.
Lighthearted in nature, her critique of Indian stereotypes and consumerist abuse is nonetheless thoroughgoing and effective.
The various gifts for trading with white people imply the "same old deal . . . but with a 'coyote backtwist.'"12 Explaining the mechanics of such a backtwist, Smith once declared, "I love taking what the white community does or says and then recreating it and giving it a whole new meaning -- that's Indian humor when you turn it around."13 In fact, Smith prefers humor: "I think people often can hear a message with humor much easier than with bitterness."14
Jonathan P. Binstock
2. Trinkett Clark, Parameters #9: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Norfolk: Chrysler Museum, 1993), n.p.
3. Ibid., quoted in Rebecca Dimling Cochran, Art at the Edge: Social Turf (Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1995), n.p.
4. Chief Seattle, quoted by Robert Houle, "Sovereignty over Subjectivity," C 30 (Summer 1991): 33.
5. There is controversy over the actual authorship of this speech. See Eli Gifford and R. Michael Cook, eds., How Can One Sell the Air: Chief Seattle's Vision (Summertown, Tenn.: Book Publishing Company, 1992), 25.
6. Smith, quoted in Clark, Parameters, n.p.
7. Lucy Lippard, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990), 113.
9. Teresa Annas, "Native American artist's works deliver a message—with humor," Virginian Pilot, 14 January 1993, B1.
10. For a discussion of the mythical trickster figure in these and other cultures, see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
11. Smith, quoted in Clark, Parameters, n.p.
12. Annas, "Native American artist's works," B1.
13. Smith, unpublished interview with Trinkett Clark, 9 October 1992.
14. Smith, quoted in Annas, "Native American artist's works," B1.