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November 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1448

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map

Reviewed by Carolyn Kastner

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 15th October 2023–21st January 2024 

In 2011 the artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith said: ‘my work is a diary or journal of my life. It starts with a message, it has layered meanings, but I like to bring the viewer in with a seductive texture, a beautiful drawing and then let them have one of my messages’.[1] However, Smith’s life and messages are discussed more often than her seductive textures and beautiful drawings. This historical oversight has now been addressed in an authoritative touring retrospective that spans fifty years of her practice.[2] It demonstrates the breadth of the artist’s imaginative powers to deliver her directives by exploiting a range of artistic styles, techniques and media. Moments of arresting comparisons and connections abound among the 130 thematically arranged drawings, prints, paintings and sculptures. Curated by Laura Phipps, an associate curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the exhibition and its catalogue, with contributions by predominantly Native authors, present a strong argument that the artist’s abstract compositions, bold brushwork and calculated colours exceed the boundaries of American art with more than messages.[3] 

As suggested by the exhibition title, Memory Map, Smith’s artful maps transcend cartography. Her abstracted landscapes, inspired by Indigenous approaches to mapping, appear early in the exhibition. These lyrical pastel compositions (Fig.13) visualise the free movement of people and animals across inhabited lands named Wallowa and Kalispell by her ancestors. She attributes her use of complementary colours to her study of the European modernists, such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. The abstract oil paintings that comprise the Petroglyph park series (1985–87) signal her mature style, in which she adapts elements deemed to be useful from the established canons of art as strategies for communication. In particular, her aggressive brushwork expresses the conflict surrounding thousands of sacred petroglyphs near her home that had been marked for destruction by private land developers. The series is distinguished by her modernist colour palette and abstract technique, to which she adds representations of ancient petroglyphs. This strategy places her at the intersection of two American painting traditions, Modernism and the original cultures of the American continent. 
In series such as Petroglyph park, the artist works on several canvases simultaneously, allowing the paintings to evolve together, whereas other works in the exhibition demonstrate common themes that recur over extended periods of time. Over the past twenty years Smith has rigorously painted altered representations of maps charting the United States to affirm the omnipresence of Indigenous cultures in the Americas. Such works challenge the limits of Western mapmaking traditions and draw attention to the lasting impacts of imperialism and colonialism. Although her maps acknowledge the geographic borders of the United States, at the same time they confront abstract political boundaries and cultural biases. The title Indian map (Fig.14) unequivocally lays claim to the pictured territories of the United States. In Indian country today (1996; Palmer Museum of Art, University Park PA) drips of paint assert the irrelevance of boundaries: the delineations between states are concealed under collaged text and images, which have been clipped from news articles that describe Native accomplishments, gatherings and political action. The consistent theme carried into this decade by a variety of means visualises an Indigenous homeland and Indian survivance despite the relentless efforts of European and American colonialism. 
The canoe is also a recurring motif in Smith’s paintings; a careful comparison of examples throughout the exhibition reveals them as visual signs of cultural identity, but not as an end in itself. The opportunity to look at each one as a discrete art object reveals the artist’s method of pointing to the very problem of cultural representation and misinterpretation. A case in point is Trade (gifts for trading land with white people) (1992; Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk VA), a largescale installation comprising a canoe painting embellished with stereotypical objects of commercial appropriation, including packaged ‘Indian Toys’ and racist sports memorabilia. It may be familiar to many due to its inescapable appearance as a sign of ‘inclusion’ in art-history textbooks in the United States. It demonstrates the problem of hypervisibility based on difference that arbitrarily confines artists such as Smith to the peripheries of traditional canons of art. In the artist’s practice canoes are not metonyms of Indigeneity, but rather explicit, personal signifiers of her Salish ancestors, as well as notions of transportation, trade and mobility in her homeland, which is now surrounded by the state of Montana. 
The exhibition juxtaposes several of Smith’s monumental Trade canoe paintings (1992–ongoing), which adopt the scale of traditional history paintings. Each one extends one of her messages, using the depth of her cultural perspective, command of art history, and painterly techniques. For example, Trade canoe for Don Quixote (Fig.15) – along with much of Smith’s work from the early 2000s – draws on her outrage concerning the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the violence inflicted on innocents. The title of the painting and the skeletons depicted in it are adapted from the vocabulary of the Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), specifically quoting from the works he made during the Mexican Revolution. Perhaps more readily legible are the figures extracted from Picasso’s Guernica (1937; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid). Like Smith, Picasso adapted an established visual lexicon – in his case, that of Surrealism – explicitly to provoke a response from viewers about the horrors suffered in the Spanish Civil War. The imperative for both artists was to communicate and move viewers to action. 
The installation at the Whitney Museum offered several long views across several galleries, inviting comparisons across time that centred on Smith’s messages as well as her artistic skills. Her accomplishments as a colourist were also clearly highlighted: reds reverberated from gallery to gallery, even as its meaning shifts between identity, difference and blood. In The red mean: self -portrait (1992; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton MA) the title resonates with the Classical ideal of the golden mean. Smith appropriates her pose from Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man (c.1490; Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). Her selfportrait is an indexical outline of her physical body, which has been traced in black on dated pages of the Char-Koosta News, the official newspaper of her tribe. Her life-size figure exceeds the circumscribing red circle. It is a masterwork of identity that affirms Smith’s understanding of art history and her rightful place in it, as an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation. She establishes the red mean as an expansion of the limited cultural lineage of art history in opposition to the impossible perfection of Leonardo’s ideal white male figure. Smith’s art has work to do. Her masterful delivery expresses her talents and her passions, but most of all her deep belief in the power of art to change the viewer’s mind. 

[1] Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, in conversation with this reviewer, 25th September 2011. 

[2] The exhibition opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (19th April 2023–13th August 2023), where it was seen by this reviewer. It will subsequently travel to the Seattle Art Museum (15th February–12th May 2024). 

[3] Catalogue: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map. By Laura Phipps, with contributions by Neal Ambrose-Smith, Andrea Carlson, Lou Cornum, Alicia Harris, Richard William Hill, Candice Hopkins, Josie M. Lopez, Larry McNeal Xhe Dhé Tee Harbor Jackson, Larissa Nez, Patricia Marroquin Norby, Lowery Stokes Sims, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Gail Tremblay and Elizabeth Woody. 263 pp. incl. 150 col. + 6 b. & w. ills. (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), $65. ISBN 978–0– 300–26978–9.