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Postmodern Messenger 

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith mixes American Indian art with a number of European techniques at her TMA show

One of the simplest paintings in Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's big one-person show at the Tucson Museum of Art is also one of the most pointed.

"State Names Map," a large mixed media on canvas from 2000, depicts the United States, loosely painted and stained, with unruly drips spilling over the states' borders. All the states are painted different colors, not the red and blue of this fractious election season, but the browns, yellows, pinks and blues of the earth.

The map differs from the standard classroom version in one important respect. Smith has stenciled in only the states' names that derive from Indian words, adding up to a startling 27 place names. The Massachusetts and Texas of our presidential contenders are included, along with Arizona, the battleground state of Ohio and a couple dozen others.

Smith's Indian geography is a haunting reminder of who owned--and named--the land before the Europeans seized it so violently, but she doesn't shy away from present reality. The old names have been conquered and confined within the rigid boundaries of the current political map, one reality superimposed upon another. By juxtaposing the two cultures that have shaped her--Indian and contemporary American--Smith literally charts her artistic terrain.

Born in 1940 in Montana of mixed Native American heritage, Smith inventively mixes an Indian artistic sensibility with contemporary technique. Ancient Indian pictographs, photographs of 19th-century Native Americans, lizards, insects and trickster rabbits are painted in oils on canvas, or collaged in layers or printed as lithographs on paper, all European-derived media. She paints fast and loose, with as much abandon as any Abstract Expressionist, creating bold planes of color, and she peppers her works with healthy doses of postmodern allusions to European and white American artists. A screaming Picasso head pops up here, a Jasper Johns flag there. Her flat modernist space--images float on undefined painted backgrounds--links her back to ancient incised drawings on flat canyon walls and sand paintings sprinkled on the flat earth.

One ironic print, "Celebrate 40,000 Years of American Art," humorously reinforces the point: American Indians were making art here long before Motherwell or Rothko ever picked up a brush. Mimicking a slick art-show poster, complete with text and image, the work features a Native American trickster rabbit.

Smith's work won her the 19th edition of the Stonewall show, an annual exhibition at the TMA celebrating the work of a living artist of the Southwest. (Smith now lives in New Mexico.) Titled Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Postmodern Messenger, the big show of mostly recent art includes large paintings on canvas, watercolors and prints.

In a biographical sketch in the catalog, TMA Curator of Contemporary Art Julie Sasse writes that Smith spent her childhood roaming the Pacific Northwest and California with her father, a horse trader. Part Flathead Salish, part Métis (French-Cree) and part Shoshone, the young Jaune (French for "yellow") traveled with her father to isolated reservations, where she evidently took in a variety of Native American arts. The carved totems of the Northwest show up, for example, in a painted face in "My Father's Longhouse," a 2004 mixed media on canvas; Plains beadwork turns up in "The Child Within."

Her solitary girlhood gave her plenty of time to explore woods and fields, examining bugs and plants, and to see the ways her father's artistry respected the earth. She admired his braided lariats, his split shingles and his horse corrals crafted of skin poles, "some of the most splendid sculpture I've ever seen," she writes.

But later on in her university art training, Smith also absorbed the principles of western modernism. She studied art history as well as studio art, both at Framingham (Mass.) State College and the University of New Mexico, and her work reflects her interest in Jackson Pollock (himself influenced by Navajo sand painting), Helen Frankenthaler and the other Abstract Expressionists. But if these painters were interested in pure form, Smith was also interested in an art that sent "messages"--hence the show's title--about the lives of Native Americans and the degradation of the land.

Not all of Smith's works are history paintings, but plenty of painted Cavalry soldiers, locomotives, buffalo herds and empty Indian dresses conjure up the devastation of the Indian Wars. The "Survival Series" of lithographs from the mid-1990s, pairing Smith's own bold graphics with found imagery, honors traditions that kept some Native Americans alive in the face of genocidal onslaught. In "The Survival Series: Humor," 1996, a steam locomotive, pulled from an old etching, roars into Indian territory while terrorized Indians flee on horseback. Above this mayhem are humorous drawings and texts meant to lesson its sting, including a joke about trickster coyote ("So Coyote said to Badger 'Take my wife ... '").

A whole suite of splendid mixed-media paintings on canvas, many of them 2004 works fresh from the studio, are organized around a central female figure. If they don't comment specifically on the historical tragedies, they use Indian motifs to meditate elliptically on nature, spirituality and cultural continuity. Headless and armless, the figures are a stand-in for Everywoman and sometimes Everyman as well. Loosely and boldly painted in layers of purple, orange and ochre, "The Child Within" has a large bird head flying overhead and a river curving upward across the picture plane. If these elements signal the need to revere nature, a tiny child's skeleton within the woman's body speaks of the need to respect its opposite number: nurture, and culture.

But at least one of the 2004 pictures cries out in rage. "Trade Canoe for Don Quixote" is a giant four-part painting, a 16-foot-long denunciation not only of the Indian Holocaust but of Bush's war against Iraq. Smith explicitly links the 19th-century American campaign of Manifest Destiny with the 21st-century imperial misadventure in the Middle East. Across her four canvas panels, she's painted a long canoe--a symbol not only of Indian culture but of the traders who infiltrated it--and filled it with skulls. This modern-day canoe is traveling not along America's blue rivers, but into the yellow sands of Fallujah and Baghdad.

A devil is on board this ship of fools, and so is an Indian lizard, looking askance into the future. A suicidal Mexican-style skeleton dives joyfully into the dust, leaving the bones of his fellow casualties to dry up in the desert sun. And here is where Picasso's screaming heads come in. Lifted from his epic antiwar painting "Guernica," the two heads tilt back and yowl, beseeching the heavens to save them.

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