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I See Red: Talking to the Ancestors

I See Red: Talking to the Ancestors
signed, titled, inscribed and dated ‘Jaune Quick-to-See Smith Talking to the Ancestors 1994 SiL/MM’ (on the overlap)
acrylic, oilstick and printed paper collage on canvas
60 x 50 1/4 in. (152.4 x 127.6 cm.)
Painted in 1994.
Garth Greenan Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Isabella Lauria
Isabella Lauria Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Artist, educator, and Native American activist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith has worked since the mid-1970s to hone an unparalleled career centered on painting and collage. One of her most powerful canvases, I See Red: Talking to the Ancestors, combines abstraction and figuration with newspaper fragments. Calling upon Pablo Picasso’s famous collages, such as Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper (1913), and works by Paul Klee, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, Smith’s engagement with this history of art is entirely her own as she foregrounds and honors Native American history.

I See Red: Talking to the Ancestors presents two indeterminate figures, perhaps conversing, or even transforming into each other. They are awash in green, red, orange, and pink, as well as newspaper clippings that depict text, comics, and advertisements. White lines dart between these bodies, potentially symbolizing a conversation whose nature we can only guess. While their relationship is unsure, Smith lends a vibrant, pulsating heat to their interaction. Surrounded by words and images, the body is flattened, only to expand again into flaming figures. A caricature cat on the canvas’s right side is both sinister and comical, adding a provisional levity to the landscape’s intense waves of pigment.

Painted in 1994, the present work is part of Smith’s I See Red series, which began in response to the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas in 1992. The color red is symbolic in Smith’s practice. She uses red to contrast the symbolism of white as innocence within Native American history. Similarly, the color red not only refers to the anger caused by the quotidian indignity facing many Indigenous populations but also a derogatory label for Native Americans. Alternatively, red is also a significant color in the dances and ceremonies of Indigenous cultures across the world, used to mark and protect bodies and objects of importance.

Smith began exploring collage in the 1990s. For the artist, collaging served as a metaphor for investigating visibility between what holds the surface and what can emerge. Smith’s collages are often dominated by a singular form—in this case, two figures—but also Native American icons such as canoes and buffalo. Such icons invite viewers to investigate closely the periodicals and text that arise amidst a flurry of brushstrokes and collage. In doing so, Smith calls attention to a history often unseen, forcing the viewer to confront a perspective different from their own.

Smith, an enrolled Salish member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation in Montana, undertook a formal art education while working to support herself as a waitress, secretary, janitor, and other jobs. Since that time, she has had more than 80 solo exhibitions over the past three decades. Smith’s reputation has only continued to soar. The Whitney Museum of American Art has announced a retrospective of her work set to take place in 2023. Similarly, in 2020, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. purchased Smith’s I See Red: Target (1992), the museum’s first acquisition of a Native American artist. She has also completed celebrated public art projects, like the floor design for the Great Hall of the Denver International Airport, a site-specific sculpture in Yerba Buena Park, San Francisco, and mile-long sidewalk history trail in West Seattle. Her work is also in the permanent collections of numerous prestigious institutions, including the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Brooklyn Museum, New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

I See Red: Talking to the Ancestors is a painting of uncommon skill and imagination. Smith’s work is a testament to her radical and activist passion for creating space for Native American artists. In 1977, while in graduate school, she and four other artists formed Grey Canyon, a collective that aimed to challenge the wider public’s limited understanding of contemporary Native art. Later in 1982, Smith help co-found the collective, Coup Marks, which staged exhibitions of Native art across numerous galleries in New York, Montana, and Washington D.C. She poetically says of her revered presence in the art world, “I think I’m a miracle and I say that whenever I talk to an audience…I tell them: ‘I’m a miracle, and any Native person here is a miracle’” (J. Smith, quoted in J. Hunt, “Jaune Quick-to-See Smith Maps New Meanings,” T: The New York Times Style Magazine, December 2, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/02/t-magazine/jaune-quick-to-see-smith.html). I See Red: Talking to the Ancestors is likewise miraculous as it creates a poetic and surreal world of melding bodies and cultures.

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