The Red Mean vs. The Golden Mean
Review by Holly von Winckel
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: An American Modernist
Carolyn KastnerUniversity of New Mexico Press
A person not especially fond of modernist art (Kandinsky or Basquiat, for example) might be tempted to skim over Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's art. It is rough, one might think, or haphazard. It is disjointed, it is simplistic, perhaps alienating. These curt dismissals would be premature—and in a roundabout way, the dismissal itself would be a concrete validation of her work’s messages. Smith, native to Montana’s Sqelix’u (Salish) tribe, and with nearly four decades of roots here in New Mexico, is not a painter so much as a visual narrator. Those with the patience and openness to follow her narrative will be rewarded.
The reader is implicated in this culturally pointed critique, inescapably so: Reading this book in English, in America, being the owner of a body … there is no neutral position for a viewer.
Carolyn Kastner's sympathetic and contextualized readings of Smith's work provide access in a way few of us would achieve without a guide. Kastner is a well-versed, expressive guide, methodically opening doors and windows into Smith's paintings. Through years of close interaction with Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and her family, Kastner has shepherded together a series of tightly organized chapters leading readers to, into and through Smith's richest work. Major themes are Smith's frequent, weighted use of the color red, her lexicon of symbolism, her need to communicate experiences of displaced Native American life and the pointed activism readily overlooked by context-less viewers.
One particularly evocative section is a detailed comparison and contrast between Quick-to-See Smith’s 1992 piece, “The Red Mean: Self Portrait,” and Leonardo da Vinci’s ur-famous “Vetruvian Man.” From a piece's title to the tiniest collaged bit of newsprint, Smith is taking da Vinci to task, and by extension, all of Euro-centric Western culture’s definitions of humanity. The reader is implicated in this culturally pointed critique, inescapably so: Reading this book in English, in America, being the owner of a body … there is no neutral position for a viewer.
“Chapter Five: The Discourse of Modern Art in a Post-Columbian World” hits pretty close to home. Where I was raised, Columbus Day is one of the sacred holidays, and the revolting tidal wave of insult and injury brought here from Europe was not part of my formal education; I found out on my own, as an adult. Therefore, Smith's “Paper Dolls for a Post-Columbian World” is a satisfying upending of what I was taught. My own sense of betrayal at having been taught falsehood cannot compare with Natives' multi-generational experience of betrayal, but getting reality into the open air is an unqualified good.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith is a political commentator who uses brush strokes, textual elements, composition and pop cultural reference points as confidently and intently as Dorothy Parker used the bon mot. Whether Smith's work suits your decorative aesthetic or not, Carolyn Kastner's sincere and erudite unpacking of her intention will broaden your appreciation of what is seen through the lens of the artist’s expression.
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