The work of Portland, Oregon-based artist falls into what might archly be called problematic art historical territory. Of course, the term “problematic” describes Western art history, and not Kaila Farrell-Smith’s work; art history has a linear, invariably European-informed inability to address Native American art as anything other than folk, primitive, outsider, or kitsch. Farrell-Smith’s work addresses not only the cultural, linguistic and geographic distinctions of her own culture (she identifies as Klamath/Modoc) but how Indigenous cultures have faced destruction through colonization, what implications that has for personal and cultural identities, and how art history itself reveals much about itself through what it does not address.
She meets the conditions of Western art half way because she has chosen the expression of painting and sculptural installation — in addition to traditional practices like drum-making. Again I have to stop myself from thinking of the work in terms of having been “elevated” to the realm of fine art since she chooses to use these methods, which would imply that the paintings, through the medium’s dominant place in art history, are somehow superior to traditional arts associated with Indigenous culture. On one hand, this bizarre tension, frustrating as it is for me to address as I try to write about the work, is on the other hand what makes this work so compelling. It’s exactly what the artist is trying to get at; in her statement she explains that her work explores the interpretations of aesthetics, symbols, languages and icons between Western and Indigenous cultures. She addresses knowledge and beauty as well as a history of violence and the complex legacy of Indigenous culture and Western colonization.
Farrell-Smith utilizes mark-making with its importance in human expression going back to prehistoric times. By applying marks, erasing them, and reapplying more marks, she constructs a symbolic language of creation, destruction, and reconstruction emblematic of native cultural experience in America. She pokes a little fun at the irony of “reel NDN” but underlying that is the serious debate about representation of Native American dress and culture within the context of Western society. The duality of the meaning of letters in M is for Mak’Lak, W is for White gives two meanings to the same image and implies an either-or-both aspect to identity. I absolutely love Drum Painting which transforms the canvas into a drum and vice versa, revealing a melding of historical traditions.
One of the key concepts I come back to again and again in thinking of Farrell-Smith’s practice is that of distinctions, or exploring boundaries. There are literal boundaries that exist all across the United States in the form of Native American reservations. She explores the in-between: the old and the new, indigene and colonizer, and the slippery, blurry area where over time Western culture melds with the Indigenous and the loss of linguistic, spiritual and cultural becomes palpable.
Kaila Farrell-Smith earned an MFA from Portland State University in 2014. Find more information and work at the artist’s website, kailafarrellsmith.com.