Arts & Culture » Visual Art

The Cultural Worker

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith at Boise State

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"In the beginning, art had no name." Thus did Native American artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith open her lecture at Boise State's First Nations Conference on September 24. It goes to the heart of the special relationship the ancient indigenous cultures of the Americas have had with the creative act. Art was such an integral part of society, helping shape its collective consciousness, defining a spiritual way of life, that for thousands of years it was never put on a pedestal. That rich heritage is part of what Smith brings to her work along with a commitment to social justice, an appreciation for popular culture, a taste for the wit and irony of Pop and the brashness of Abstract Expressionism. A talented painter and printmaker, Smith's art captures the multicultural existence that informs Native American life today. A traditionalist, a modernist and a non-conformist, she calls herself "a mediator," "cultural worker" and "bridge builder" between cultures, stating "my art, my life experience and my tribal ties are totally enmeshed." Smith stirs your conscience without bitterness.

The first time I came across Jaune Quick-to-See Smith was at Seattle's Center of Contemporary Art (COCA) in the early '90s in De-colonizing the Mind: End of a 500 Year Era, the groundbreaking, touring exhibit held in response to the quincentenary celebrations of Columbus' "discovery" of America. Curated by and exhibiting only contemporary Native American work, it was the first major exhibition of its kind completely under the control of American Indians. They used the opportunity not only to challenge endless stereotypes but to establish a new direction for Indian art, where artists defined their art themselves through their own means and forms. Smith was, and still is, at the forefront of this movement. A piece of hers in that show, Paper Dolls for a Post-Columbian World, with its catalog of government-issue "Indian" vestments (including a lethal dose of smallpox) was classic Smith--combining a cartoon style, an advertising format and an emotional color sense that made a poignant point while communicating a defiant pride.

Born and raised on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, Smith is a member of the Confederated Salish/Kootenai Tribes but also has Metis, French-Cree and Shoshone-Bannock ancestry. She studied art at several colleges, including the University of Washington, before getting her masters in fine art from the University of New Mexico. By that time, she had already begun supporting herself as a painter. From her humble beginnings, Smith has risen to a figure of considerable renown. In addition to 80-plus solo exhibits of her work since 1979, Smith has organized or curated over 30 exhibitions of native artists, has lectured at some 175 cultural and education institutions and conferences worldwide and is the recipient of three honorary doctorates in art. The number of recognizable, non-native artistic influences in her art is striking, including Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. It is intriguing how well Smith's blend of traditional Indian pictographs/stylizations, Pop Art appropriations of commercial logos and late modernist gestural abstraction succeeds in her art. It makes for sensitive and powerful imagery that is entirely her own.

Smith's exhibition at Boise State's Hemingway Center (through November 3) is a mix of old and new. The main event is new work comprised of twelve unframed watercolors on paper, with an emphasis on the human body and its relationship to "other things of the earth." Her headless torsos are either static, like loosely rendered, anatomical illustrations depicting the circulatory or nervous systems, or they prance about interacting with other creatures or extra body parts. They are a little crazed and the artist seems to be having fun, but her message is one of life, death and interbeing, evoking "the great net" of life in which we and all other life forms are the various "knots," as celebrated in both American Indian and Buddhist thought.

Arguably the stronger parts of the show are the two groups of older works. Four lithographs from Smith's 1997 series entitled Survival Suite represent paired or single concepts as crucial ingredients to maintaining the longevity of a culture. Typical was Nature/Medicine, a bold, effervescent piece in reds, blacks and ghostly blues that exuded a life force of its own. Almost hidden away from view were four lithograph/monoprints from Smith's 1997 Ceremony Series. These sensitive and evocative works of a more minimal cast were touching autobiographical vignettes. In Tule Pollen, a disembodied hand in the sky releases an imposing yellow cloud of powder used in various rituals which descends on the artist, portrayed as a disconcerted youth. The center of each piece is dominated by an area of thoughtfully applied hues reminiscent of the abstract Philip Guston or Cy Twombly, with an overall demeanor akin to Rauschenberg. They are a treat.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's exhibition is on view at Boise State's Hemingway Center through November 3. The gallery is open M-Fr: 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sa: 12-5 p.m. More at 426-3994.