Octogenarian museums are no big deal, globally speaking, but in Los Angeles, where the museum boom is a recent phenomenon, an 80-year-old is a rarity. When the institution entering its eighth decade turns out to be the venerable Southwest Museum, the birthday is cause for celebration.
We ought to toast the grand old Spanish-style building and its superior collections of American Indian material for just being there, high above the Pasadena Freeway. But that isn't how things are done these days. You must have a new look to be appreciated. Never mind that the Southwest had a complete face lift and put its house in impeccable order only a couple of years ago, transforming a musty warehouse into a splendid showcase. If you want your friends to celebrate your birthday you need a new attraction.
So the Southwest Museum has staged a party in the form of three exhibitions: Mexican folk art from the Nelson A. Rockefeller collection, Mexican jewelry collected by Federico and Ellen Jimenez, and a show of works by eight contemporary Native Americans. All remain on view through Jan. 5.
Most prepossessing is the colorful show of about 100 pieces of Mexican folk art, but it's only a sampling of 3,000 such objects collected by the late Nelson A. Rockefeller over a 30-year period. He planned to install the cache at a ranch in Texas, but died (in 1979) before the project was realized. His daughter, Ann Rockefeller Roberts, bought the collection from the estate and subsequently gave it to the Mexican Museum in San Francisco.
Displayed in thematic categories ("Fantasy of the Artisan," "Man and Woman") or according to function (ritual objects, clothing, toys) or material (glass, ceramic, lacquer), the exhibition is a sort of smorgasbord. Explanatory labels lend substance, but a lot of small, tasty bites don't add up to a very satisfying meal or blend into a dominant flavor.
There are, nonetheless, outstanding pieces. Take Teodora Blanco's sculptural ceramic fantasies that merge human and animal forms into whimsical "dolls" or zoomorphic figures. One example, standing about 3 feet tall, might have walked out of an enchanted garden. This fanciful personage wears a skirt, has a body of stacked animals heads, balances a pot on the top one and swarms with little birds and flowers. Another whose body is composed of four heads is festooned with horned animals who play musical instruments.
Much of the work is shaped by magical visions or an infectious sense of wonder. Fearsome masks include a captivating wooden creation with two sets of eyes and hair made of rope and rabbit
fur. Animals pop up everywhere, often serving as banks and candle holders. Even relatively plebeian ceramic ware is infused with a wide-eyed view of nature. A fine group of large pots includes an effusively flowered jar and a bumpy, lidded number that emulates a pineapple.
The Jimenez jewelry collection--all shiny, intricately finished and inherently valuable--shares the main gallery with the folk art and offers a sharp contrast to popular arts that seem to have willed themselves into being through the sheer force of imagination. The jewelry is a testament to the mastery of material, technique and design--generally for the sake of human ornamentation. A spectacular array of objects ranges from a pre-Hispanic shell necklace to gold and coral work from the colonial period to silver jewelry by contemporary masters William Spratling and Antonio Pineda.
"Eight Artists II" is a mixed bag of paintings, sculpture and ceramics by artists from the Southwest, Alaska and Canada. Only their Indian heritage and an urge to incorporate it in their work unifies the art. Otherwise it shoots off in all directions from Clifford Beck's romantic, design-conscious portraits of Indians to Bob Haozous' and Richard Glazer-Danay's heavy-hitting, socially critical sculpture.
Felice Lucero-Giaccardo represents an emotional middle ground with a captivating group of paintings and works on paper that are rather like sheets from a poetic artist's diary. Horizontally lined "pages" are overlaid with snippets of handwritten text, postcards, photographic images and drawings, all related to the artist's experience. She handles the territory of Pueblo childhood, Indian schools and assimilation with uncommon grace and the touch of a feather.
That wraps up the party, but perhaps the best birthday news for Southwest Museum followers is a special double issue of "Masterkey," the museum's quarterly publication. It's a handsome, long-awaited, easy-to-read visitor's guide to the museum and its collections.
The Southwest Museum suffered some cracks in its building during the recent earthquake. The three special exhibitions are open, but parts of the permanent collection are temporarily closed for inspection and assessment of damage.