Once relegated to the periphery of the art world, a trio of women have spent decades pairing artistry with activism.
Identity politics and multiculturalism surfaced in mainstream art institutions during the 1990s.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Judith Baca and Mildred Howard were already addressing these issues through collage, paint, sculpture and murals.
Open at Santa Fe’s New Mexico Museum of Art, “Poetic Justice” showcases the thematic intersections of this modernist trio. They used the power of art to critique political and social ills in a celebration of modernism, muralism and jazz.
“All three have been working in this socially-charged way for decades,” curator Merry Scully said. “They are well-known and well-respected and maybe deserve more than they are getting.”
Corrales artist Smith is a Salish member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, Montana. Internationally recognized, she works across media, including painting, drawing, collage and printmaking.
The exhibition features seven of Smith’s large-scale paintings. She works in complex abstractions addressing social and cultural issues.
Smith’s “I See Red: Indian Nickel Head” and “I See Red: A Nickel for Your Thoughts” span two 6-foot-square canvases; one painting shows the head, the other the buffalo. The U.S. Mint struck the coin from 1913 to 1938.
The piece originated as a commission from a New York gallery.
“I just did it my way,” Smith said in a telephone interview from Corrales. “It’s expressionist and it’s dripping paint. He liked it so much he commissioned the other side.”
“I See Red: 10,000 Years” was inspired by a book about pictograms – rock carvings – across the Plateau region. The area includes parts of Alberta, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming.
“They were doing these drawings as expression of the life force that goes through everything,” Smith said. “That whole region is littered with cave paintings people don’t know about.”
Smith saw similarities between the work in the caves and her own.
“Everything I draw is always an outline,” she said. “Even the outline of the nickel; that’s an outline I could fill in.”
Based in Venice, California, muralist Baca trained at La Tallera Siqueiros in Cuernavaca, Mexico, working with students of the renowned muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco formed the “tres grandes” of the Mexican mural movement.
Like them, Baca uses her art to record and amend the history of her people. Her most famous work, the “Great Wall of Los Angeles,” tells a multicultural history of Los Angeles.
Painted across a San Fernando Valley drainage wash, it remains one of the world’s largest murals, spanning 2,754 feet, Scully said.
The exhibit features a detailed section of Baca’s portrayal of the 442nd Infantry Division of Japanese American soldiers in World War II.
“This is from 1940,” Scully said. The men were one of the most highly decorated officers of the war. Many of them came from families deported to American internment camps.
“She works with history and education teachers and at-risk students to create these murals,” Scully added. More than 400 people contributed to the images.
“When I first saw the wall, I envisioned a long narrative of another history of California; one which included ethnic peoples, women and minorities who were so invisible in conventional textbook accounts,” Baca wrote.
Bay Area African American artist Howard is known for her large scale sculptural installations and public artworks. She was raised by politically active parents who worked on community issues affecting their South Berkeley neighborhood and the Civil Rights Movement.
Howard works with found and everyday objects to create her pieces. She contrasts the old with the new to create new meaning and messages.
The artist created “Square Meal” from a lunch box and a cast black hand.
“It talks about education, nutrition and equity with that simple juxtaposition,” Scully said.
Howard also created model train cars from safety deposit boxes. She christened the work “Tha Dogg Express” in an homage to the rapper Snoop Dogg.
“Much of her work talks about the African American contribution to culture,” Scully said.
The show also includes Howard’s installation “The Time and Space of Now,” as well as film footage she took as a 14-year-old girl.