at the Mexican Fina Arts Center Museum, through May 29

No matter how many exhibits of pre-Columbian art I see, the best pieces remain strikingly strange. The vessel that represents the rain god Tlaloc in the exhibit at the Mexican Fin Arts Center Museum is not one of the greatest, yet still there’s something eerie about its round eyes: their shapes echoed by circular lines, they peer out from the surrounding deep blue with an uncanny presence.

Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco were flourishing Aztec cities located close together on the site of what is now Mexico City, destroyed–along with much of Aztec civilization–by the Spanish invaders and their indigenous allies in 1521. This exhibit contains about 90 objects from both cities: stone sculptures, ceramic vessels, masks, censers, and a textile fragment, among other things. As befits an exhibit of recent archaeological findings, not all the objects are of great aesthetic quality, but all are interesting, and the best are stunning.

These works imply a very different worldview than the one most of us share, despite all our differences. “Reality” for these people seems to have been far more fluid–the animal, human, and spirit worlds were seen not only as interdependent but as interchangeable. Abstract designs take on the quality of secret languages, as vivid as the most realistic sculpture. When a modern artist takes the viewer on a similar flight of fancy–as the surrealists did, say–we sense we’re peering into a subjective world, a dream state, an image in someone’s mind. But in this work objects, however abstract, directly invoke actual things: a ceramic turtle vessel is far from a realistic representation of a turtle yet has a powerful physicality. This is an objective world of animal-like deities and abstract patterns that contain the power to bring sun and rain; a simple figurine of an animal with its offspring can suggest eternal cycles of death and rebirth.

Some of the show’s smallest objects are among its most powerful. Wonderful sculptures of musical instruments–a drum, a flute, a rattle–are clearly not actual instruments: they’re a bit less than full-size and made out of rough volcanic stone. Yet the vivid texture of the stone and the earth-toned paint that colors the objects give these ideas of musical instruments the solidity and presence of the land itself. A very tiny, crudely carved maquette of a temple, the steps mere ridges, is amazing in its audacity–one of the smallest objects in the show representing the largest of Aztec constructions. Particularly beautiful are two miniature mortars and pestles sculpted of black obsidian, a shiny volcanic glass. Their smooth surfaces betray none of the scars of actual use, but from their size we know they weren’t intended to be used anyway–they are more perfect versions of important everyday objects.

The temple maquette comes from Tlatelolco–but all the other miniatures mentioned, and indeed most of the objects in the exhibit, come from the ruins of the Aztec main temple, or Templo Mayor, in Tenochtitlan, whose site is now the center of Mexico City. The small objects–cached in little boxes or stone chambers built into the foundation of the temple, presumably when it underwent renovation or expansion–were dedicatory offerings. These tiny sculpted objects were accompanied by animal remains and shells; the caches were meant to represent virtually everything in the Aztec world. The sense that these models are living presences with a power as great as the things they represent is apparently in keeping with the Aztecs’ purpose in making them. Richard F. Townsend, curator of the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Art Institute of Chicago, told me, “The inclusion of all these objects as offerings in the building makes the pyramid a fetish object–a monument imbued with power and life.”

Also found in Templo Mayor was a group of 685 snail shells, nicely displayed here on a bed of pebbles with some small statues. While we cannot know exactly what the Aztecs who left these snails were thinking, in the spirit of much of their art I’d like to imagine that they considered the snails–creators of their shells–as colleagues, as fellow artists, rather than as specimens of some lower life-form, as we might. Much of Aztec art displays not the precise Euclidean designs of the civilizations of the wheel but rather the ever-changing mix of symmetry and irregularity found in nature.

Two turtle-shell vessels illustrate this point. They’re displayed as vessels, as concave shapes, so that their powerfully weird faces–one of an old woman, one of a tattooed face–can be seen, but the outside shell surfaces (revealed by a mirror mounted under them) display repeating squarish patterns, with squares inside squares, in several colors. This design seems a product of the human imagination–I know of no natural forms like these–yet there are hardly any perfect right angles or straight lines, and the color scheme repeats but irregularly. I found myself marveling at a mind that could unify a turtle shape, a human face, and an abstract design, all in a vessel designed, according to Townsend, for ritual use.

Perhaps even stranger is a censer with a three-legged zoomorphic stand covered with geometrical designs and forms suggesting animal faces. One of its legs ends in three toes, the other two in hooves–what manner of beast is this? Apparently two different kinds of animals, one likely a bird, support a container for burning incense–perhaps a sign of the Aztecs’ impulse to include all the known world in the Templo Mayor caches.

One of my favorite pieces is a clay figurine of an opossum and her offspring: it perches on her back, its slender, oblong body perfectly aligned with her oddly elongated head. Tapering black stripes from the mother’s eyes to her snout further emphasize the horizontal. Mother and offspring seem a single unit; and nature seems an integrated whole, its beings important not individually but as examples of the cycles of birth and death.

My other favorite is a spectacularly painted jug, the kind of rare piece that leaves even a critic wanting to say as little as possible, other than urging the reader to go see it. A glyph representing the sun, abstract designs that suggest glyphs, and figures of gods are combined in an ecstatically rhythmic design. From a distance the design looks unified, almost decorative; up close, each part seems a letter from a different language. The dizzying complexity of this design suggests the unifying vision of a civilization whose temple was meant not only to include but also to stand for the entire world.

Also part of the show are paintings and murals, commissioned by the museum and created by local artists from Mexico, depicting these cities and reproducing images from ancient Aztec or Mixtec books. When I first saw them, the purist in me was annoyed. The two large murals are done in the style of magazine illustrations; aside from being aesthetically undistinguished, they clash with the style of Aztec art. But as I spent more time at the show, and especially when I returned on a crowded Sunday, I began to understand how the murals functioned. One, by Oscar Romero, shows the Tlatelolco market; the other, by Mario E. Castillo, shows the whole Valley of Mexico, including the two cities on the ancient lake surrounded by mountains. Both help place the exhibit’s objects in their physical context. Museum visitors, who moved from the murals to the objects, were always reminded of the geography and culture from which the objects came instead of seeing a collection of things in isolating museum cases. The best of Aztec art–like that of most Native American cultures–is as great as any, yet it’s remained in the background of art history; as contemporary artists continue to engage with it, the results are likely to grow more profound.

After viewing this show, I wandered into a nearby room in which an enormous model of the city of Tenochtitlan was on display (only through March 13). Made by fourth- through eigth-grade students at the Gerald Delgado Kanoon Magnet School, which began its first Columbian studies class in 1992, it includes not only the walled temple complex but adjoining residential precincts. Like the murals, this model is evidence of active community involvement through art making and provides a visual context for Quinto Sol exhibit. Varied, imaginative colors and forms make it wonderful to look at, as children’s art often is: the houses and gardens of each residential plot, surrounded by water, are of somewhat different design; each boat is a bit different from the others. But everything was so perfectly ordered and clean that I started to think it was all a bit artificially Edenic, the white temples unstained by the blood of the Aztecs’ human sacrifices. The curmudgeon in me began to think about “feel-good history,” the valorizing of historically maligned peoples that, according to some critics, has so taken over our schools.

Just at that moment two young boys came in; one had been there before and was offering his friend a tour. He pointed to the temple area, and the first thing he said was, “This is where they had the sacrifices.” At that moment I realized it’s much better to present previously underrepresented history and art imperfectly than to ignore it altogether. If enough of the truth is made available, people who really care about truth, like children, will quickly learn it all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frederico Rivera.