When Montana native Jaune Quick-to-See Smith moved to the Southwest in 1976, she had hopes of studying art at the University of New Mexico, and then teaching at Santa Fe’s revered Institute of American Indian Arts. But her career took an unintended, though very instructive, turn: The school’s fine arts program turned her down three years in a row. Smith continued to work, and network, in Albuquerque while the college kept passing her up. Suddenly, in the fourth year, she was warmly accepted. But by then, her paintings were already showing in New York.
This turn of events can be seen as a measure of a number of things—Smith’s determination, for one, or the capriciousness of just who gets admitted to art schools—but it also suggests something more important: that New York art dealers understood then what some Western universities still haven’t. Native American art has been changing, radically. And Jaune Quick-to-See Smith has had a big hand in changing it.
This week, the Art Museum of Missoula opens its doors on A Gift to Montana, a selection of prints by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith that will help us continue to draw from that lesson. Sixteen works in all, it will provide only a small sample of what Smith has done over the past quarter-century, but it’s still enough to sketch out Smith’s complex career.
Born in St. Ignatius and schooled in Massachusetts, Smith reached maturity as an artist painting pieces that can only be described as modern—sometimes expressionistic, sometimes almost cubist—but always bright, vibrant, and freighted with the symbols of Indian tradition. It was around this time, the late 1970s, that she became active in the Pan-Indian movement in Albuquerque, organizing Native artists around the principle that they were all on the same social and political—if not always visual—canvas. Soon, her work became more spare and more pointed, deploying Native images—bison hunts, religious symbols, human figures reminiscent of ancient petroglyphs—as talismans of power, rather than mere signposts of some vague “Indianness.” By the mid-1980s, Smith began to be looked upon as a role model. She was curating her own shows. She was lecturing. She was landing big public art commissions. While Indian art was being commodified all around her in tourist shops and pastel galleries, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith was changing what Indian art meant.
This course reached its fullest point in the early 1990s, when America’s awareness of its Native roots was raised by the 500th anniversary of the Columbus conquest, and Smith began the most aggressive and eloquent phase of her career. The formal basis of her work remained basically the same: Native symbols outlined around themes of loss, strength, and dispossession. But she began grafting them, with the technical skill of a surgeon, onto more contemporary images from American culture. Newspaper clippings about powwows, hawk-nosed stereotypes from advertisements, as well as clear-as-air titles like “I See Red” and “Paper Dolls for a Post Columbian World” began to show themselves. And perhaps more importantly, so did methods that were lifted directly from popular art. The collage work of Robert Rauschenberg, the muted American flags of Jasper Johns, even hints of the prints of Andy Warhol became tools for powerfully ironic, and politically astringent, work. Suddenly, people started to get it: American art had been appropriating her heritage, her land, her likeness, for centuries. She was just taking them back.
And now, she is giving them to us. The prints featured in A Gift to Montana are the first installment of Smith’s donation to the Art Museum of Missoula. In the years to come, she will be donating a print of each of her pieces to the Museum, to form the foundation of its Contemporary American Indian Art Collection. There is still, it seems, a lot left to learn.
See “Gallery Guide” and “8 Days a Week” for info on Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s appearances in Missoula this week.