Ancient West Mexico: Art of the Unknown Past

at the Art Institute, through November 22

Ancient Mexico: Pre-Columbian Art From the West Coast Cultures

at Douglas Dawson, through October 24

By Fred Camper

“Ancient West Mexico: Art of the Unknown Past” is everything a museum exhibit should be–and it originated at the Art Institute. Unlike that institution’s mammoth presentations of such late-19th-century painters as Monet, Caillebotte, and now Cassatt, this presents unfamiliar, challenging work from cultures thousands of years old. The sensitive installation, by Vinci/Hamp Architects, affords the objects good visibility without intrusive showmanship. And the show’s sharp focus–it includes a scholarly catalog and groups similar objects from different communities together–encourages the viewer to develop an intimate acquaintance with the various styles represented. Yet on my most recent visit, there was a line for the members’ preview of “Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman” and no wait for “Ancient West Mexico.”

Of the 262 ancient objects on view–there are also four modern works that show these cultures’ influence on 20th-century artists like Henry Moore and Diego Rivera–almost all are aesthetically superb, refined in form and detail in ways unfamiliar to most of us. Running concurrently is a show of some 60 objects from the same cultures at Douglas Dawson. Commercial galleries often piggyback on museum shows in the hope that collectors’ interest will be piqued. Not surprisingly, the best Art Institute work surpasses anything at Dawson, but the gallery’s display has one crucial advantage over the Art Institute’s: none of the work at Dawson is under glass. You can walk around the pieces, viewing them up close and from various angles; the gallery will also turn works that are against the wall around. Even better, a visitor who asks may be allowed to touch the pieces, and running one’s hands over these beautifully crafted objects is an experience not to be missed. Caressing the bulbous curves of a contortionist at Dawson–a man face up with a bowl-like opening in his belly–heightens one’s sense of a plentiful harvest.

Exhibition curator Richard Townsend makes the point in the Art Institute catalog that the ten or so styles represented here, mostly by objects made between 200 BC and 300 AD, have garnered less attention than those connected with more spectacular ruins, like the Mayan. (Unless noted, the works mentioned here are at the Art Institute.) Work from the cultures has been collected for about a century, however–items created for burial with the dead, probably the elite of their societies. Not surprisingly, these objects were intended to “equip the departed for their safe and comfortable passage into the realm of spirits,” Townsend notes. More important, he thinks, was the desire to show that the departed were “mature, fully made people”: many of the objects celebrate such rites of passage as puberty and marriage. Presumably reflecting the life of the communities that made them, these mostly hand-sculpted earthenware objects depict human figures, animals, plants, and town centers. The bewildering variety of styles are identified in the catalog, which also does a fine job of speculating on the cultures that produced them. The works’ original context is important, of course, because they were made for ritual use, not for simple visual pleasure.

Despite the many different styles and the often dynamic poses and powerful lines, much of the work has an underlying quietude not found in many other pre-Columbian cultures. These sculptures may refer to the seasons, the cycles of a human life, or a particular moment in one person’s life, but they are also permeated by silence, a sense of movement and time arrested: these living presences are monumentalized, preserved forever. A figure about to eat looks not at his food but up and away. A seated man holds a ball to his chest as if about to throw it, but his almost perfect symmetry and blank stare suggest the distilled essence of ball throwing. A seated chieftain at Dawson, similar to other figures at the Art Institute, is supremely calm, static, and symmetrical. He stares ahead with a look that seems an amalgam of all looking. His bulbous surfaces are gentle and powerful at once to the touch, his body an abstraction of all seated men. This 15-inch figure is as powerful and silent as a monument, permanently at rest.

Most of the figures display a tension between representation and abstraction. A pancake-thin figure with her hands on her knees, broad-shouldered and angular, would look at home in any 20th-century gallery. A plump, bulging dog effigy at Dawson may represent a dog fattened to be eaten. A seated female figure at Dawson and a high-ranking matron at the Art Institute are represented as bulging masses, their stomachs forming disklike curves; both are as monumentally solid as massive hills. Forming a notable contrast with their bodies are their more angular, elongated heads: the human body may be of the earth, but the head acknowledges the figure’s humanity.

Indeed, there are few if any reclining figures here: seated or standing, these humans have an impressive verticality. After reading Christopher L. Witmore’s catalog essay, I think I know why. Among these artists’ town models are some that show figures surrounding a ziggurat pyramid, the tomb where the community’s elite were buried. These vertical structures not only connected the dead with the living but the earth with the sky, just as the town plan connected the human community with the land: following the model of a circular ceremonial center, each town had four houselike pavilions pointed in four directions, linked to “the order of the world and the rhythms of the seasons.”

Many of these figures, like the solid, seated women with elongated heads, seem to connect earth and sky. But where Western art, with its long tradition of portraiture, depicts individuals, these cultures had no apparent investment in the individual. They saw humans instead not only as members of their communities but as part of an overarching cosmology linking them to past and future, air and soil, the mythic underworld and the heavens. And like many other pre-Columbian cultures, they expressed these concepts in spatial terms: the horizontal axis represents the landscape, and the vertical links the landscape with what lies above and below.

Just as these cultures connected individuals with the cosmos, so individual sculptures invoke spaces beyond the figures, which often look or reach outward. A seated female holding a bowl with arms so short she’d never be able to lift it to her mouth has what looks like another bowl atop her head–another offering. A seated storyteller spreads his hands wide, as if encompassing the tale: this open space connects him to the past he presumably invokes. A deeply affecting seated female figure with a tiny red handprint on one breast is uncommonly individualized: the symmetry of her torso is disrupted by the red hand, while her legs, tucked one under the other, make for an unusually dynamic lower half. But her face is as precise and timeless as in a late-Gothic painting: her eyes are slits, and they look at some invisible horizon–toward eternity.

At both venues even warriors poised with their darts are eternalized. They often look away from the direction of attack, suggesting a pose for posterity rather than an imminent stabbing. Sometimes these figures are festooned with patterns, geometrical designs on helmets, armor, and even faces. Research suggests a link between such patterns and contact with other cultures, perhaps through trading; in those cultures geometrical patterns were not mere designs but attempts to symbolically map the world. Here the patterns’ overall quality, their sense of continuing forever, also undercuts the particular moment.

Ceramic vessels in both shows often reveal nature’s bounty on their handcrafted surfaces–shrimp, crayfish, zapotes. Two similar vessels molded in the shape of a squash on parrot-shaped legs at the Art Institute offer an opportunity for comparison. Both are wonderful, but one seemed to me far greater. The squatter, less round one without black discolorations is more dynamic, even a bit unstable, its ribs somehow not quite long enough to suggest completed curves.

Today artists often buy their materials from stores, with little thought for the complicated, alienated labor that went into them. But this vessel was molded by hand, perhaps the same hands that gathered the clay, perhaps hands that also helped plant and harvest squash. The vessel looks neither inferior nor superior to the food it symbolically holds: its maker saw both as products of the same soil and the same human labor. Similarly, the many depictions of humans with animal features here (one wonderful male figure has a bird-beaked hat, a beaky nose, and a conical phallus) show that these people saw themselves as participants in the animal world. Though their social organizations were hierarchical and elitist, they saw humans as coequals with the earth.

Today symbols are more often than not treated as jokes in art. But these people had to make sense of wind and rain and sun and the seasons, for themselves and for generations to come. The ultimate ironic triumph of their work is that, looted from their tombs and now understood in context, it can begin to make sense for us of the world we have lost.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited artwork.