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ART REVIEW

Latin splendor

Bound to change perceptions, 'The Arts in Latin American: 1492-1820' is the most important exhibition in L.A. this year.

August 04, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

DEPENDING on where you're coming from, it can be difficult to wrap your head around colonial painting and sculpture from Latin America. The art made between the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and the stirring of independence movements in Mexico and Central and South America three centuries later does not play by precisely the same rules as European painting and sculpture of the same period, with which we're most familiar.

But why should it? A colony is a very different place from a mother country -- as Americans who live north of the Mexican border and have their own colonial past should know.

"The Arts in Latin America: 1492-1820," which opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Sunday, is an exhibition destined to change a lot of minds. That's another way of saying it's a landmark.

There's been nothing quite like it before. A mesmerizing survey focused exclusively on the painting, sculpture and decorative arts of the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru, as well as Portugal's colony in Brazil, it's easily the most important exhibition in Los Angeles this year.

The sweep is vast -- 300 years covering an enormous swath of the globe. The art made in Lima and Mexico City, 2,600 miles away, is closely related yet very different, just as it's related to yet different from the art made in Quito and Antigua, in modern-day Ecuador and Guatemala. And art's evolution in all these places was pronounced. A review runs the risk of being reductive, simplifying a complex phenomenon to the point of obscuring it.

Generally one can say that 16th century Latin American artists were European immigrants, sent by theocratic Spain and Portugal to do some heavy lifting by making images. Artists had two significant jobs: Record the conquest and -- especially -- help convert indigenous peoples to Roman Catholic Christianity. Of nearly 120 examples in this exhibition, only 18 paintings and virtually none of the sculptures are secular.

By the 17th century, artists were often Creole -- meaning born in Latin America -- their ties to European artistic developments looser. The great flowering of European Baroque art in the period is characterized by spatial dynamism. But in Latin America, the story is different. Colonial Baroque art is distinguished by extraordinary surface embellishment.

And finally, the lavishness can be extreme. Given the unprecedented wealth in gold, silver and other natural resources being pulled out of the New World from the mountains of central Mexico to Potosí in Bolivia, 18th century artists pumped up the artistic splendor to astounding levels.

Whether a painting of the Virgin Mary as a divine shepherdess -- rendered as an elegant porcelain doll swathed in crimson and cobalt garments edged in gold lace -- or a sculptural crown of thorns cast in solid gold and studded with gemstones, it's art meant to impress.

Call it winning through visual intimidation.

It's that "winning" part that has kept colonial art in the shadows of art-historical respectability until fairly recently. Before the 1980s, pre-Columbian and Modern art were afforded a respect that the art of colonial conquerors had scant hope of commanding. A classically designed object just outside the entrance to LACMA's show demonstrates why.

A fragment of a 16th century stone column, symbol of the firm foundation and resilient strength of the Catholic Church, is tipped on its side. Underneath is revealed a highly refined bas-relief carving of the Mexica monster-goddess Tlaltecuhtli.

Invading Spaniards took an indigenous stone monument and remade it into a temple column, building an authoritative edifice atop the rubble of the vanquished. A more stark representation of one culture grinding another beneath its heel is hard to imagine.

With the recent rise of postmodern and post-colonial studies, however, the art made between the time of Columbus and 19th century independence has steadily been brought into focus. "Mexico: Splendor of Thirty Centuries," which traveled from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to LACMA in 1991, was the first important American exhibition to fill the colonial gap. The current show is the first to thoroughly survey viceregal art on its own.

As it does, one essential feature of the colonial aesthetic seems to offer a special challenge to contemporary eyes. One hallmark of a Modern aesthetic is its utter disdain for decoration as an artistic virtue. Modernism's revolutionary spirit is what banished colonial art to the shadows.

"The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects." So wrote Austrian architect Adolf Loos in a famous 1908 essay, "Ornament and Crime." He wasn't talking about Latin America, but linking elaborately decorative sensibilities with brutal misdeeds -- ornament and crime -- is a fairly concise generalization of what went on in colonial art.

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