JAUNE QUICK-TO-SEE SMITH
at Jan Cicero Gallery, through November 26
at N.A.M.E. Gallery,
through November 25
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith remembers being shown slides of work by Pollock, de Kooning, Frankenthaler, and other abstract expressionists when she first began taking college art classes in 1958: by then, this style had triumphed. Theirs was an art that aspired, in Mark Rothko’s words, to the “tragic and timeless”: vast fields of color or complex gestural lines placed the artist outside of any cultural context, outside the confines of time and space. But alternatives to this view also began to emerge in the 50s. Jasper Johns painted flags and targets; Robert Rauschenberg incorporated printed fabric and pieces of newspaper. They and others stressed the way individual identity is shaped by culture.
While American art today is too gloriously eclectic for any trend to be declared dominant, two current shows illustrate how artists now define their own identities in part through a variety of received images–from earlier art, from mass culture. Perhaps as a consequence, these artists present us not with the nonreferential, unified visual fields of the abstract expressionists but with heterogeneous imagery loaded with associations and often divided against itself.
In the five recent collage paintings by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, now on view with three works on paper at Jan Cicero Gallery, the outline of a traditional image of a figure or animals fills the frame, and from a distance would seem to be the work’s primary subject. But up close the surface reveals itself to be full of other, very different material–swaths of paint of course, but also newspaper articles, images from books and magazines, even a section of the yellow pages.
Ten Thousand Years contains the outline of an elk Smith took from a 10,000-year-old Siberian rock drawing. Painted broadly and in various colors–red, green, and white, often at the same time–the figure seems almost to vibrate, as if alive, suggesting an icon. Just above the head is a cutout print of leaves and flowers placed as if sprouting from the antlers, as if the elk were connected to, and even a source for, other natural life. Also near its head is a black-and-white line drawing of an Indian on horseback riding in the same direction the elk is facing. The two canvases of this diptych are placed together with only a small crack between them, and the way the elk continues across the break adds to the figure’s presence and power.
But this picture speaks with other voices as well: around the elk are present-day advertisements and illustrations, among them multiple images of a fierce-looking Indian labeled “Wenatchee Chief”–presumably some product logo. There are food coupons, illustrations of plants, cartoon bears, and children’s games or puzzles, including a maze in which the player is asked to “help the woolly mammoth find its young”–a cartoonish reference to an earlier time. The hovering elk’s transcendent mystery is the opposite of the bright blue ad for a “space pen,” whose colors have all the flat, stuck-in-themselves qualities of commercial imagery. But there are degrees of authenticity and power even among the present-day images. One can hardly endorse the Wenatchee chief, any more than one could a cigar-store Indian–yet this rendering has a certain stark power when compared with the cartoon bears nearby.
Ledger Book Horse, another large diptych, is equally strong. The title refers to the ledgers the military gave to some of the Indians they’d imprisoned in and around their forts, which Native Americans used to draw pictures of their confinement and of their past. The image of a horse that fills this painting was taken from one of these books, now collector’s items. Outlined in red, pink, black, blue, and gray, the horse is shadowed by fainter outlines: seeing the legs and the head in several positions suggests that the essence of the horse, its spirit, lies in its movement. Inside and outside the outline are newspaper articles–one is headlined “Canadian native people unite in fight for sovereignty, rights.” There’s a book cutout of Indians “encamped” (i.e., imprisoned) next to a fort, photographs of Indians, childlike drawings of figures and animals. Above the horse’s back are several sheets from the Sante Fe yellow pages–Smith lives in Corrales, north of Sante Fe–in which “Indian Goods” are directly preceded by “Incinerators.”
Clearly Smith, a member of the Flathead tribe who was born on the Flathead reservation in Montana, is protesting both past mass murders and present depredations. The evanescent beauty of her large outlined figures suggests a reverence for traditional Native American imagery, while the broad strokes and swaths of color on much of the surface suggest the aesthetic of an artist first influenced by abstract expressionism. Most of the fragments from newspapers and magazines seem at war with both these kinds of images, however. Their often cartoonish shapes and figures represent a culture that reduces everything Native Americans care about–the human form, animals, nature, the blue sky–to commodities to be viewed in an instant, known according to their names or to the products they’re meant to sell, meant to be seen as static, firmly outlined shapes rather than as moving spirits.
Smith’s paintings are like battlegrounds, in which different ways of seeing and thinking compete. Yet the battle lines aren’t as clearly drawn as they first seem. Streaks and swaths of color often bleed into the found imagery, partly covering it and integrating it into the overall fabric. Near the horse’s hind legs is a cardboard cutout reading “Snookums Apples,” advertised by the absurdly caricatured face of a smiling Indian boy. Some of the lines of the horse’s legs cross over this image, but one or two go behind it, as if Smith wished to avoid making any simplistic separations between one kind of imagery and another. In fact each painting is a kind of cultural self-portrait, illustrating, in Smith’s words, “those strange dichotomies we live with in the 20th century.”
These dichotomies are most explicit in Indian Orator. Clustered near the mouth of a figure wearing a headdress is a group of clipped-out words from newspapers and magazines: “Drumbeat,” “Tribal Fish and Wildlife Cases,” “Bingo”–a game, Smith points out, that was introduced to Indians by priests. Smith presents all of them as equally acceptable “orations,” embracing them just as she uses paint and composition to integrate the disparate parts of her works, trying to unify the incongruity-filled present.
The theme of “Again,” a show of six artists at N.A.M.E. curated by Tatsuya McCoy, is the use of repetition. But since all the artists have appropriated their repeated forms, their works seem at least in part to reflect on the cultures that spawned the forms. Like Smith, these artists present themselves not as autonomous inventors but as commentators on their contexts.
McCoy calls Amy Sillman’s paintings “arrangements of inclusion”; like Smith’s, they include diverse forms. In ascending order of complexity, the forms in A Stork & 3 Devils go from a one-liner cartoon through more and more suggestive shapes to “transcendent” pure colors. At one extreme is a comical devil with beard and pitchfork; to his left is a more suggestive “devil”: larger, goofy-looking, and with a prominent hard-on. A row of strange green dots down his front and confused facial features–how many eyes, where are they?–make him a bit less cartoonish. Above this devil is a complex pale green decorative pattern of swirling forms, somewhere between doodles, wallpaper design, and contemporary abstract pattern painting. Throughout are various shades of red, presented as solid color, as lines, and as broad, irregular brush strokes. Central to this powerful work is the paradox that while everything seems connected–forms lead to other forms–images at one end of the continuum are diametrically opposed to images at the other. Sillman restates the central paradox of Smith’s work: pictures containing diverse, even contradictory parts can seem unified without their oppositions disappearing. The acceptance of contradictions is arguably the sanest response to our ever more chaotic culture, but one result is that individual identity–the artist’s, the viewer’s–seems torn apart by conflicting forces.
Female identity seems to be the subject of Susan Homer’s two paintings. In Evening, a multicolored floral pattern covers the canvas; at the center a woman, her facial features indistinct, holds up the sides of a long dress. The twists and turns of the pattern suggest both contemporary wallpaper and the beautiful designs of flowers and vines adorning many late-medieval illuminated manuscripts. A yellow green glow suffuses the woman. Girl (Thicket) is darker; while there are bright red flowers scattered about, dark leaves sprouting from dark vines dominate the image. In the center is a white outline of a woman with her hair in a bun, her back to us as she peers into this mysterious garden.
Of course flowers and decorative patterns are associated with women in our culture; and Homer’s iconic female figures are clad in traditional dresses. But the nature patterns, especially in Girl (Thicket), are far from the flatness of wallpaper: each leaf and blossom seems to float in the darkness, each in its own space, as does the woman’s outline. Those floral patterns don’t define the women–rather the patterns serve as a kind of springboard, sending the figures off into light, the freedom of empty space. Homer apparently sees traditional cultural definitions of female identity as liberating.
Corey McCorkle’s two “portraits” on stainless steel of Shirley MacLaine show liberation’s opposite. These are the only works in either show that reveal almost no sign of the artist’s hand, and they’re the simplest compositionally; yet they struck me as in some ways the most powerful. All we see in Shirley: Don’t Fall Off the Mountain is a color photocopy of an image of MacLaine that appeared in one of her books, with an irregularly shaped comic-book thought balloon a bit above her head to the right containing a part of the same pic- ture: Shirley is thinking of herself. McCoy’s comment in the exhibit brochure seems apt: “Reincarnation is the ultimate repetition; the individual as many. . . . Narcissism serves as series.”
Most of the rest of the metal surface is filled with a white that is, in its way, as diverse in its possible meanings as the works of Smith, Sillman, and Homer. Impersonal, industrial, this white recalls the spotless countertop of a TV-commercial kitchen or a just-opened fast-food joint. Yet it’s also oddly luminous; and the more I looked at it, the more it seemed to contain. As one’s eyes move from MacLaine to the white and back again, afterimages of her face appear everywhere; the shiny white surface allows her thought balloon to multiply endlessly in the mind’s eye.
In fact McCorkle did not arrive at this white easily or immediately. He went out of his way to view the white paintings of Robert Ryman, and he tried out different materials for his own works. Finally he settled on a white latex paint, spraying it on in many coats in the “clean room” of a place that paints furniture. The dual effects of the white parallel the opposing effects of Smith’s pictures–at one extreme a flat, static, mass-manufactured product, and at the other an allusive, mysterious light.
But instead of a self made up of complex and opposing parts, McCorkle gives us a humorous yet horrifying vision of a self that can see only its own image, surrounded by a vacuous visual field that allows that self to multiply endlessly. Perhaps this is his view of the social context–or noncontext–in which at least some of us function. He replaces Smith’s presentation of the complexities of history and the various struggles to form a present identity with a blank screen, a kind of mirror, giving us back only more and more images of the same celebrity.