A new exhibit at the Lowe Art Museum is a journey through 3,500 years of Mexican history — from sun-baked clay Mayan figurines taken from ancient burial tombs, to a peyote-inspired painting, to an earthenware sculpture of brown-skinned apostles feasting on a last supper of tortillas and watermelon.
"Las Artes de Mexico: From the Collection of the Gilcrease Museum" is a traveling exhibit of pottery, paintings, folk art, and prints that weaves a compelling tale of a nation's mysterious past and its lurching path to maturity. From the ancient world of the Mayans and Aztecs to the 20th-century works by Miguel Covarrubias and Diego Rivera, it's an eye-opening show with a story at every stop.
At the entrance of the gallery is Standing Tomb Guard — Nayarit, an earthenware sculpture dating from 300 BC to AD 200. The angular male figure, wearing what oddly appears to be an Oriental bamboo hat and wielding a cudgel, seems to have been scratched out of the sun-baked soil.
Las Artes de Mexico: Through April 5. Lowe Art Museum, 1301 Stanford Dr,, Coral Gables; 305-284-3535, lowemuseum.org. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday noon to 7 p.m. Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
This figurine, which was discovered in the Teuchitlán Valley in Western Mexico, and many of the pre-Columbian artifacts on display like it, peel the veil back on lost cultures where ceremony, ritual, and veneration of the dead were part of everyday life.
Censer Cover (Xantil) Tehuacán, dating from AD 1400-1500, is a brazier used for burning incense. It's shaped like a mythical being or a ritually garbed priest.
During the last few centuries before the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, the people of the Tehuacán Valley produced these vessels, called xantiles, as a way to communicate with the gods. They used a tree resin called copal as incense, which when burned created dense smoke.
The hollow, cylindrical censers were created in the form of seated figures, allowing the smoke to escape through the open mouth and rise to the heavens to transmit prayers to a rich pantheon of deities.
Another unusual earthenware piece is Aztec Skull Vase, created between AD 1325 and 1521. The painted beaker includes a jutting representation of a human skull, reflecting the role of ritual sacrifice and death in Aztec culture and cosmology.
Several pieces pay homage to animals that served as key figures in Aztec and Mayan creation myths, were believed to be gods, or were used as part of religious rituals. Dog Vessel — Colima, circa 300 BC to AD 200, for example, depicts a breed of hairless dog native to west Mexico that Aztecs believed helped guide human souls to the afterlife.
The influence of the Spanish conquest on native worship is evident in several pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries in which the figures of a Madonna and saints retain indigenous features and reflect a range of beliefs and practices unique to Mexico.
One example is a skull-rattling Huichol masterpiece created from rainbow-hued yarn and beeswax. The late 20th-century door-size yarn painting brings to mind a Timothy Leary mind-fuck on steroids.
Through the use of peyote, the Huichol create the elaborate designs used in their artwork. They use it as a sacrament to gain entrance into the spiritual realm. For them, it symbolizes the essence of health and good fortune. The image of a peyote plant can be found in most of their hallucinogenic yarn paintings.
Spectators can lose themselves in the arresting Huichol piece here. At the top, a crucified Christ bleeds into the earth, where marigolds spring from the puddle. Near the bottom, an azure water goddess engulfs rabbits, sheep, and a crumbling building, sucking them into the whirling pool of her body. From the jagged rays of a blazing sun in a corner, winged deer descend as they march upright in the celestial void. People appear fishing everywhere, hunting and kvetching with mythological creatures that boggle the cranium. The entire scene seems to vibrate with a mysterious unseen power.
Carlos Mérida, who was born in Guatemala in 1891 and died in Mexico in 1984, created in 1943 an equally dynamic series of color lithographs, titled Estampas del Popul Vuh, based on the epic tale of the creation myths of the Maya. In two buoyant works brimming with tangerine, sunflower, topaz, and succulent pink tones, birds, animals, humans, and gods are transmogrified in a near-abstract salvo.
Mexico's long history of printmaking in the service of social change is evident in the works of Leopoldo Méndez of Taller de Gráfica Popular (People's Graphic Workshop), founded in 1937.
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The group created exemplary images representing social justice topics such as land reform, progressive electoral candidates, antiwar and anti-imperialist movements, solidarity with foreign struggles, folk life, labor and trade unions, Mexican revolutionary history and heroes, and other progressive causes.
José Guadalupe Posada initiated political and social commentary in Mexican graphic arts in the 19th Century. Wall text informs that artists such as Méndez continued the tradition of politically inspired and widely disseminated graphic images by depicting the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, armed uprisings of the working class, and the corruption of postrevolutionary government and business leaders.
Mexican art became closely identified with the working class following the revolution of 1910.
At the Lowe, this wide-reaching exhibit, featuring more than a hundred works and artifacts, offers an engaging look into the soul of the Mexican mosaic in a way that can't be fully absorbed in one visit. The good news is that "Las Artes de México" will leave visitors clamoring for more.