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ART REVIEW : Underpinning the Elegance, Ferocity of 'Maya Universe'


The year AD 455 was pivotal in the course of world empires.

Great Rome was by then so weakened that the Germanic Vandals sacked its capital with impunity. Meantime halfway around the world a people called the Mayans established a temple complex on the Yucatan Peninsula known as Chichen Itza. As Rome crumbled, it marked the beginning of a new great civilization.

Among the Mayan pyramids, astrological observatory and dwellings were ceremonial ball courts. These played a role in the Mayan belief that the sun god must be regularly placated with the blood of human sacrifice.

Angelenos have reason to identify with both civilizations. Now they have the chance to contemplate rare treasures of each of their arts.

The L.A. County Museum of Art is showing "Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period." Last week, the J. Paul Getty Museum opened "A Passion for Collecting; Ancient Art From the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman." This trove of classic Western art will be reviewed here separately, but the juxtaposition is provocative.

A culture's value system is embedded in its art. Classic Western art shows the Homo sapiens animal striving to transcend itself. Pre-Columbian art tends to be more earthy, dealing with the situation on the ground.

Like Greek painting, most surviving pictorial art of the Mayans is literally made of earth. But the 98 ceramic vessels and related objects on view at LACMA act as more than a display of ceremonial objects of use. The ensemble reveals, in small part, a great painting tradition whose scale could command massive wall frescoes. One is reminded pointedly of the great mural tradition of modern Mexican art.

The show was organized by Duke University Museum of Art curator Dorie Reents-Budet in cooperation with LACMA's Virginia Fields. It comes with a handsomely illustrated scholarly catalogue and will travel to Yale Art Gallery.

The largest number of objects are cylindrical vases. From any distance they look like particularly muscular abstractions in geomorphic shapes of black, white and earthen yellows, reds and tans. Like the opening strains of a symphony, they announce that what follows will be high drama. Their very physical presence speaks. Elegantly honed ritual shapes and lovingly massaged surfaces bespeak refinement. This is the art of an elite class, given to create an impression, so valued and magical that owners wanted to be buried with these objects.


Even the simplest and most truly abstract reveal the hands of artisans who were true artists. Numerous works are signed. A tripod vessel with three built-in sauce dishes is like a chip 'n' dip bowl made for a king. A shallow plate decorated with no more than nine small repeated motifs is so sensitively designed it becomes an exercise in cosmic wit.

Many vessels have bands of calligraphic motifs ringing their tops. Recently their meaning has been deciphered, revealing dedications to giver and receiver, the names of artists and even the sort of food and drink for which the container was intended. (Mayan aristocrats loved chocolate.)

Absorbing as this is, it pales a bit when one hones in on pictorial scenes telling the appearance, life and temperament of the Maya royals. Few women are shown. When they are their appearance is not greatly distinguished from the men. They were a stocky, hawk-nosed people with sloping foreheads, small, tightly pursed mouths and bulging eyes. They encumbered themselves with far less clothing than we do, except at the beach. Chests and legs are usually bare but loincloths were rich and headdresses sumptuous.

Exquisite Mayan drawing reveals all this down to the last ear ornament. It's spidery linearity varies from region to region but all of it has a property extremely rare in the history of art. Like great modern animators, Mayan draftsmen had the knack of making still drawings pulsate with incipient movement. This is quite tricky enough to do even when drawing a running figure. Considering the ceremonial stillness of most Mayan compositions their feeling of vivid life is borderline miraculous.

Pictures wrapped around vases are not always easy to read. The exhibition eases the problem with numerous roll-out photos by Justin Kerr. Narratives vary from scenes of supplicants kneeling before the gods of the Mayan underworld, to images of a ruler collecting tribute from an underling. They have things in common. Actors human and supernatural are surrounded by magical animals. Jaguars for power. Bunnies for fecundity. Serpents for wisdom.

The most pervasive theme, however, is unabashed hierarchical power. Everywhere somebody is standing tall or seated on a dais while somebody else grovels. The artists' command of expression and body language is breathtaking.

The emotional bottom line hovers somewhere between violence and humor. This art will put some viewers off for the same reasons that ancient Assyrian, Indian or modern Expressionism does. It accepts violence and grotesquerie as part of a life that is so vivid and energized, it seems to writhe. What makes it worth a second look is its realism and ultimate humanity. These overarching masterpieces of world art are able to communicate immediate human experience across a span of 19 centuries.


Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., through Jan. 8, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, (213) 857-6000.

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