LACMA curator Victoria Lyall — who ably organized the show with her late museum colleague, Virginia Fields (to whom the show is posthumously dedicated), and guest curator John M. D. Pohl from UCLA — writes in the excellent catalog that these animal vessels "captured the imagination of 10th-century trendsetters in much the same way that iPods have with 21st-century consumers." It's easy to see why.
Things get even more complicated in an elaborately painted vessel from Colima, an area south of Puerto Vallarta and not far from the Pacific Coast. A crouching figure portrays a warrior (note the small club in his right hand, the little shield on the left wrist and the growling coyote helmet) merged with an otherworldly deity (the mustache and long fangs of the face mask identify a rain god). This gorgeous vessel records a double-duty impersonation, fusing power in opposing realms of heaven and Earth.
One nice feature of the show is the way it deals with all this relatively arcane cosmology. If you don't know your Tlaloc from your Tonatiuh or your Xolotl from your Xochipilli, never mind a quechquémitl from a huipil, it's as easy to get lost in Mesoamerican metaphysics as it is in the philosophical soap operas enacted on Mount Olympus. Rather than employing dense explanatory labels, the museum gives pride of place to the objects.
Formal emphasis allows for a general understanding of the emergence of an authentic international style. Divided into five sections in a spare installation, things have room to breathe. Simple pedestals and display cases are minimalist in design. Careful juxtapositions draw resonant visual connections across space and time.
If the show sputters a bit in the last room, that's only because Quetzalcoatl's story doesn't have a definitive ending. Unlike the more familiar Aztec culture in central Mexico, the children of the plumed serpent continued on after Hernán Cortés and his Spanish cohorts arrived on the Gulf Coast in the spring of 1519. They resisted domination, actively engaging in commerce. It helped that the largest gold and silver deposits fueling much of the invaders' brutality towards indigenous people were not located in southern Mexico.
But to see the continuity manifest in art, check out the diaphanous, white-on-white Oaxacan textile where Quetzalcoatl meets the King of Spain: The patterns include both an abstract snake and a double-headed Hapsburg eagle. It was woven in 2010 by Zenaida Pérez Mendoza — the show's only named artist.
'Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico'
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Through July 1. Closed Wednesdays.
Contact: (323) 857-6000, http://www.lacma.org
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Art review: Natalie Bookchin at LACE