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Its art is in the right place

The colonial story of `Revelaciones' comes to life at a historical Latin American site.

April 01, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — SOMETIMES an art show's location can be as powerful and illuminating as the actual works on display. A perfectly chosen venue can transport us in time, breathe life into inanimate objects and turn a static diorama of the past (or present) into 3-D, experiential reality.

It's impossible to stroll the Vatican museums or the Uffizi, admiring the Renaissance masters, without feeling the presence of a beneficently smiling Medici, or Savonarola's baleful glare. Conversely, how many critics have fretted about whether Frank Gehry's shimmering Guggenheim Bilbao might be upstaging the less-than-lustrous artworks inside it, like a willful ingenue at a Hollywood cocktail party?

It's hard to imagine a better fit between a mise-en-scene and its subject than the aptly named "Revelaciones" (Revelations), a vast exhibition of Latin American colonial-era art that will arrive at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in August. Currently, it's installed in resplendent surroundings at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, smack in the middle of this convulsive metropolis of 8.6 million, the second stop in a trek that began last year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

What LACMA viewers will experience this summer and fall is a show that Times critic Christopher Knight, reviewing the Philadelphia edition (titled "Tesoros / Treasures / Tesouros"), praised as an "astounding" survey of painting, sculpture and decorative art produced in Spain and Portugal's New World colonies, from Columbus' arrival in 1492 to the wars of independence in the early 1800s that gave bloody birth to Latin America's new republics. (See the review at

Made up of 250 works from 13 countries, "Revelaciones" brings together art from throughout the Spanish-speaking former colonies (plus formerly Portuguese-ruled Brazil), which were divided into administrative viceroys but functioned as interlocking parts of an empire. This approach allows the curators to draw thematic and stylistic links from Cuba all the way to the Rio de la Plata in South America.

Many objects are stunning, even one-of-a-kind: an 18th century sculpture of "Our Lady of Sorrows," from Ecuador, her face framed by a brilliantly fabricated black-and-gold shroud; a Guatemalan sculpture of the infant Christ crucified, a tear dripping from one child-sized eye; a sculpture of St. Jerome, his musculature and the folds of fabric around his stomach rendered with Bernini-like virtuosity.

Colonization, the show makes clear, quickly scrambled the New World's creative DNA. The creation of craftsmen's guilds in Mexico City; Lima, Peru; and elsewhere brought Mannerist and Baroque influences to the Andes and Mesoamerica. A painting of the Crucifixion from 1637, by Batazar de Echave Ibia, could've been made in Spanish-occupied Flanders a half-century earlier. New pigments were produced from the addition of exotic South American ingredients. Quechua Indian words and imagery sprouted on colonial pottery.

It all testifies to an intense exchange of artistry and ideas, a cultural swap meet with few parallels before or since.

What LACMA viewers won't experience, alas (unless they hustle down here before June 24), is the revelatory perspective of seeing "Revelaciones" framed by the venerable San Ildefonso museum: its antique stone colonnades, contemplative courtyards and acidly satirical murals by Jose Clemente Orozco, part of Mexico's holy trinity of modern mural painters whose other members were Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Orozco's murals were added in the 1920s, and their depictions of arrogant capitalists literally trampling over the poor expressed the quasi-Marxist sentiments of Mexico's post-revolutionary government. They provide an ironic visual commentary on the treasures contained in "Revelaciones."

Treasures within a treasure

SAN Ildefonso, in fact, incorporates practically the entire arc of Mexican history over the last four centuries. It was founded in 1588 as a Jesuit seminary. After the Jesuits were expelled from the New World in the late 18th century (for opposing the exploitation of native peoples), the building was used as classrooms for a school of medicine and later as an army barracks by the U.S. and French forces that invaded Mexico in the mid-19th century. After passing through several more incarnations, it was restored and reopened to the public in 1992 as a museum.

The building sits at the northeast corner of the capital's sprawling Zocalo, or main square, an area mobbed by ambulant vendors selling pirated DVDs and knockoff Tommy Hilfiger socks. Both a living symbol of Mexico's past and a refuge from its roiling present, the building has preserved a theatrical air, a sense of drama rooted in history. As you wander the exhibition's 12 third-floor galleries, you pass through tall, heavy wooden doors that are opened and closed by solemn, deferential guards. Questions about rank and privilege never are far from the visitor's mind.

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