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If you don't think myth remains a large part of contemporary culture, you probably haven't been paying close attention to the evening news, the Discovery Channel, or the Internet, where stories of the fantastic, inexplicable, or just plain dumb abound.
Then there are sundry reports of Sasquatch, Chupacabra, and Elvis sightings, plus crop circles and stories about how UFOs from Zeta Reticuli visited Connecticut to experiment on Betty and Barney Hill's genitalia.
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Truth or fiction, it doesn't matter. Myth remains a part of the way we experience the world and try to make sense of the confusion we feel.
"Sacred Stories, Timeless Tales," a new exhibit at the Lowe Art Museum, explores the roots of mythology and features more than 100 works drawn from the museum's vast collection of some 17,500 objects spanning 5,000 years.
The show represents the art of Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa and includes a sprawling array of media ranging from pottery and ceramics to paintings, sculptures, textiles, and works on paper.
And not unlike the principles that obsess the human psyche today, concepts of creation and morality, love and mortality, the cosmos and divinity, beauty, regeneration, and heroes and war all combine here in a loosely based narrative that transcends time.
The captivating exhibit was curated by Denise M. Gerson, the Lowe's associate director, and is complemented by a handsome catalogue and expansive, informative wall text that bring diverse cultural traditions alive. It's a great summer show and a fantastic reminder of where the seeds of the likes of Hogwarts, X-Men, Thor, the Green Lantern, Frankenstein's monster, and even Kung Fu Panda were hoed.
The staggering scope of works on display stretches from a sixth-century-B.C.E. Greek, black-figure hydria (water jug) depicting heroes Achilles and Ajax playing dice in front of the goddess Athena, to an image of Bela Lugosi that Andy Warhol created in 1981.
On the Greek vessel, an armor-clad Athena, the patron goddess of warriors, offers her blessings to the two friends who later died bravely in the Trojan War.
Dracula (Lugosi), from Warhol's Myths Portfolio, is one of the artist's diamond-dust screen prints from the series depicting iconic pop-cultural figures who had achieved mythic status. It depicts Lugosi in his classic 1931 film role as Dracula and foreshadows the current vampire renaissance led by the Twilight saga and shows such as True Blood.
The genesis for films such as 1964's Kwaidan, which in Japanese translates into "ghost story" and was based on Lafcadio Hearn's collections of traditional Japanese folk tales, is reflected by one of the more unusual pieces at the Lowe.
Ghost Lantern (Oiwa) is a small netsuke sculpture whose stained patina has faded through age. It's signed by master ivory carver Okatomo, who was active during the Edo Period in the late 18th Century. The diminutive figurine, not much larger than the head of a Pez dispenser, is based on a tale of betrayal, murder, and ghostly revenge. One of the most bloodcurdling Japanese ghost stories ever penned, it has been adapted for more than 30 modern films.
Catalog text unfurls the legend behind the carving. Iyeomon, an umbrella maker, poisons his wife Oiwa to marry a younger woman. His wife becomes disfigured by the poison, discovers her ghastly visage in a mirror, and, with her last breath, swears payback from beyond the grave.
Later, when the man prepares to bed his new bride, he recoils in horror after peeling back her wedding veil and uncovering the ghostly countenance of the murdered Oiwa. Terrified, a sword-wielding Iyeomon falls on his new bride and beheads her. Oiwa's deformed apparition follows him everywhere, even leering from a smoldering paper lantern, driving him insane.
Okatomo's pocket-size ghost lantern depicting the unsightly phantasm packs a potent reminder that long-ago myths continue to inspire the contemporary imagination.
The exhibit also includes rare examples of the pantheon of India's extensive mythological cosmos, considered among the world's oldest epic traditions.
A tenth-century sandstone sculpture from Rajasthan, India, depicts one of the most popular deities in Hindu culture, Ganesha. The elephant-headed god symbolizes good fortune and is thought to remove obstacles.
Ganesha Breaking His Tusk to Throw at the Moon is a deeply carved relief that relates a popular tale of how the moon snickered at the divine pachyderm's tubby guts after his belly split open from gorging on sweets. Embarrassed and enraged by the slight, Ganesha supposedly yanked off a tusk and hurled it at the moon.
Ganesha is typically invoked to bring luck to marriages, births, businesses, and voyagers. He is one of the many trickster figures — along with the Native American coyote and raven, as well as the Roman god of fire, Vulcan — haunting the Lowe's corridors. For contemporary trickster counterparts, just think of Capt. Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean; Bart Simpson; Batman's archenemy, the Joker; or even Felix the Cat.
The exhibit also boasts items such as an empress's stunning robe, dating back to the 1830s, from China's Qing Dynasty, and a fierce 20th-century African Kuba Kingdom helmet-style mask representing an ancestral spirit and crafted from wood, glass beads, parrot feathers, cowrie shells, monkey hair, and leopard fur.
It is one of about a half-dozen attention-commanding African headdresses on display used by diverse cultures from across the continent to re-enact tribal myths of origin.
The imposing mask personifies Woot, a legendary king who founded Kuba society and established his realm between the Kasai and Sankuru rivers in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Donned by subsequent royalty during initiation rites and public ceremonies, and buried with deceased kings, these masks often bear the somber appearance of a grizzly-bearded old man, representing the wisdom of tribal sages.
One of several representations of agricultural fertility and healthy crops can be found in an Aztec stone sculpture, circa 1350-1550, hewn from basalt and standing about the height of a garden gnome.
Chicomecoatl, the goddess of maize, was believed to embody the ripe maize plant and was worshipped as a symbol of fecundity and sustenance. In Nahuatl, her name means "seven serpents."
Among the more humorous works on view is Medusa Plate (1999), a porcelain dish created by Brazil's Vik Muniz. The contemporary artist's sly take on a famous 16th-century Caravaggio painting depicts the Gorgon who had snakes for hair and eyes that turned beholders to stone.
Muniz is known for upending artistic conventions by often employing weird materials — including Bosco chocolate syrup, sugar, peanut butter and jelly, and dirt — to re-create iconic images such as da Vinci's Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, which he then documents with photographs. Muniz's cramp-inducing piece of Limoges china was originally commissioned by a private collector and later donated to the Lowe.
In the piece, he gives Medusa the slapdash treatment, substituting pasta for writhing snakes and using tomato sauce for blood spewing from her severed noggin. The round white plate is meant to evoke Athena's shield, where the monster's head was mounted by the goddess after it was lopped off by the Greek hero Perseus.
The show presents an Ariadne's thread that you can follow from corner to corner while discovering new, compelling stories around every bend.
As fascinating today as when first told, these tales will inspire you to visit the Lowe again and again to discover fresh chapters, because there's way too much to digest here in one call.