New York

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Steinbaum Krauss Gallery

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s latest show offered a timely and articulate response to this year’s quincentennary celebration of Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World. In a sophisticated, post-Modern idiom, this series of mixed-media paintings speaks to the politics of Native American identity.

Each relatively large painting presents a busy field of fabrics, newsprint, advertisements, and comics, covered with dripped and splattered paint, a mode that owes not a little to Robert Rauschenberg. Unifying each composition is a single iconic image in black outline, traditionally associated with Native American life. Above all, these paintings problematize prevailing stereotypes of Native Americans. In Trade (Gifts for Trading Land with White People), all works 1992, the artist displays an array of items that stereotype Indians—paraphernalia from the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves, toy tomahawks, headdresses, and moccasins, as well as Red Man chewing tobacco. By suggesting a mock barter for land, Smith wittily recalls the purchase of Manhattan for mere trinkets. The canvas itself bears an image of a canoe (a traditional symbol of trade), as well as the newspaper headline “It’s a Steal.” Red, a predominant color in this as in other works, functions not only as a subtle play on the term “red man,” but as an unavoidable symbol of both spilled blood and anger.

As in the past, images of animals play an Hirsch Perlman, “Establish Your Identity” important role in Smith’s work, and here they function allegorically. Indian Horse, which addresses the slaughter of horses for food in the headline ”Burger or Being? The Choice is Yours," alludes to the mistreatment of Native Americans. The looming beast portrayed in Buffalo refers more concretely to massacre, not simply of this animal, but of the people who once hunted them. In response to the many smiling, buckskin-clad maidens found in a variety of advertisements, Flathead Dress depicts a positive and realistic image of Indian women: the shape of a traditional animal-skin dress frames images suggesting that women are the backbone of contemporary Native American communities.

Among the strongest works in this show were those in which Smith appropriated Western art history to put her activist message across. In The Red Mean: Self-Portrait, Smith wickedly re-presents Leonardo da Vinci’s Study of Human Proportion in the Manner of Vitruvius, ca. 1490, replacing his drawing of an ideal man ensconced in a perfect circle with her own outline covered by an Indian medicine wheel, a device traditionally used to mark the changing seasons. By deftly appropriating this hallowed icon, Smith establishes an apt art-historical reference point from which to raise environmental, health-care, and contemporary social issues. Painted in earth tones and labeled to reflect Native American history, Indian Map infuses a Jasper Johns–like map of the United States with political meaning: Washington, D.C., is inhabited by “The Bad Boys,” the Atlantic Ocean witnesses “Columbus Adrift,” and Chief Joseph presides over the northern plains.

In the past, Smith has been criticized for being retardataire in her use of various European and American modernisms—an unfair criticism, considering that the appropriation of Modernist styles is a common denominator of recent post-Modern art. In this show eclecticism and irony are the order of the day, the unmistakable tools of the post-Modernist, and also age-old hallmarks of traditional Native American art. Smith continues to straddle the categories of “ethnic” and “mainstream,” rendering them, at least momentarily, obsolete.

Jenifer P. Borum