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The art of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

In the Footsteps of My Ancestors

“The Swamp,” oil on canvas by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Photo courtesy of Accola Griefen Gallery

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Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's In the Footsteps of My Ancestors at Tacoma Art Museum is a knockout punch to the emotions. Paintings and prints on display range from the 1970s to 2017, and from the earliest to the latest they are expressive and exciting. Upon stepping into the gallery, I immediately thought of Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Michel Basquiat, although her work is much more narrative and symbolic than the former two. And then I saw hints of Phillip Guston in "The Vanishing American" and of course Jasper Johns in Smith's paintings of maps and flags.

Like Pablo Picasso, Smith is a great eclectic. And yet her work is truly and uniquely unlike that of any other artist. She is Native American, raised on the Salish Kootenai reservation in Montana, and the myths and stories of her people are referenced in all of her work, along with commentary on war and peace and environmental destruction and her love of animals -- particularly horses.

She was influenced by Native art and by such modernists as Rauschenberg and Georgia O'Keefe, to whom she pays homage in the painting "Georgia on my Mind" (no, the title does not come from the song).  

Her drawing ranges from childlike and primitivist to delicate and highly sophisticated, and her painting style has the drip-slash power of abstract expressionism. Her pictures are crowded with images from Indian legends, tribal life, art history and pop culture. Visitors will see Disney cartoon figures, skeletons, the devil, figures copied from other artists, and a rabbit called Nanabozho who is a trickster in Ojibway and Cree culture.

Typically, Smith's paintings have one large central figure, be it a map, a person or an animal, often drawn with heavy black outlines and surrounded by drips and splashes of color and a cluster of the figures and objects of her large imagery repertoire -- the meanings of which are obvious in some instances and hidden or twisted in others. When she uses words (hand-printed or collaged) they are often humorously biting, or they are sly puns.

"Trade Canoe: Don Quixote in Sumeria" is a painting about war in the Middle East and a homage to Picasso's "Guernica." It is a monstrous painting, 60 by 200 inches. The central element is a canoe stuffed with skulls and the screaming woman from "Guernica." Riding in air above the canoe is a skeleton man on a skeleton horse recognizable as a ubiquitous figure from Day of the Dead observances.

The first painting to greet visitors when stepping inside the gallery, "The Swamp," sucker-punched me with its de Kooning-like color, paint handling and composition. The central figure, a woman with the head of a deer, stands in water surrounded by a tornado of eyes, a snake, feathers, hands and Nanabozho the trickster. 

"Celebrate, 40,000 years of American Art" pictures a happy dancing rabbit with the title scrawled by hand to remind us that while American art goes back only a few hundred years, according to European-American tradition, it really goes back much farther if you look at the true American artists.

Seeing this show should be mandatory for every student in western Washington, from kindergarten through graduate school and all the people who cannot be in school at all but are thirsty for beauty and learning.   

JAUNE QUICK-TO-SEE SMITH'S IN THE FOOTSEPS OF MY ANCESTORS,10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, through June 30, $15 adults, $13 students and seniors, free for military and children 5 and younger, free Third Thursday from 5-8 p.m., Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.272.4258,

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