Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Landscapes of an American Modernist” was the fourth exhibition in the Living Artists of Distinction Series at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, honoring those making an important contribution to American modernism. The previous honorees were Anne Truitt (2000), Sherrie Levine (2007) and Susan Rothenberg (2010).
Like O’Keeffe, Smith, a Sqelix’u (Salish) member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, utilizes a vocabulary of abstraction to interpret the New Mexican landscape and convey a deeply felt sense of place.
O’Keeffe’s landscapes are timeless and uninhabited. Smith populates hers with animals, people, traditional native architecture, urban skyscrapers and symbols of contemporary culture. Indeed, her overarching theme is the relationship of people to the land they inhabit.
Referencing European and American expressionist painting, as well as pictographs and petroglyphs, hide paintings and ledger book drawings, Smith brings disparate creative traditions, cultures and ideologies into the modernist painting field, where they collide, compete and coexist. Hers is a contested landscape, in contrast to that of 19th-century American painting, which pictures a romanticized unspoiled west.
The tightly curated exhibition presented six paintings from Smith’s “Petroglyph Park” series (1985–1987) and seven related drawings (1978-1991). All were created in response to a threatened 17-mile stretch of land along the Rio Grande near Albuquerque, a site sacred to indigenous peoples, where over 20,000 ancient petroglyphs are carved into volcanic rock. In Herding (1985), the only horizontal painting, horses, birds, native figures and petroglyphs harmoniously occupy a landscape agitated by repeated zigzag lines suggesting not only lightning and mountains, but a soon-to-be fractured terrain and way of life.
In a manner similar to Susan Rothenberg, Smith builds up her surfaces with layers of strokes. But Smith’s have more urgency, crowded with signs and symbols that take over the landscape, leaving no place to rest. There is no horizon line. Smith flattens the pictorial space, creating an upright vertical barrier rather than an invitation to enter into an arena already under siege.
The Great Divide (1987) holds in balance the inhabitants of oppositional worlds—as emblematized by elements of nature and high-rise buildings—separated and surrounded by mountain formations. Georgia on My Mind of 1986, an homage to O’Keeffe, who died that year, utilizes the same compositional strategy to different ends. Smith’s characteristic iconography occupies the left side of the painting, while abstract landscape shapes on the right refer directly to O’Keeffe paintings such as Black Place II (1944). Echoing each other through energetic paint strokes in rich primary and secondary colors, two cultural traditions are seen side by side. Content is generated as much through paint application as imagery.
Gessoed canvas visible at the bottom edge of Georgia on My Mind creates the effect of paint and painting rising up. The energy is palpable. It’s a stunning work that, along with the exhibition as a whole, places Smith, and her indigenous American perspective, firmly within the narrative of U.S. landscape painting.
Photo: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Georgia on My Mind (detail), 1986, oil on canvas, 64 by 48 inches; at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.