Ancient American galleries of "Latin American Art: Ancient to Contemporary"

Review

of an Exhibition

by Jeanne Hoel

Published on January 09, 2009

  • Description:

    On Pre-Columbian art and Pinkberry: Jorge Pardo’s reinstallation of the Ancient America galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

    The first view is shocking. Well, the first two views. The first is revealed when you step out of the elevator: an oblique view of boulder-sized, horizontally layered potato forms surrounding the entryway to the exhibition. A large Diego Rivera painting and a display case of Western Mexican figurative sculptures are embedded in the forms. Strange but seductive. The spaced-apart layers of the giant potatoes undulate and look soft, yet clean and crisp like a George Nelson bench. A large pedestal stands in the lobby, its base using the same computer-milled stacking chips as the entry-way frame. I was struck by the futuristic, somehow familiar, ovular Plexiglass cap on the lobby pedestal, which like its base, repeats throughout the exhibition. Later I pinned the caps as evocative of vacu-formed clam shell packaging, the kind used for selling small electronic products.

    This is where it became complicated—a feeling I had the whole time—in ways that confused, delighted, and sometimes offended me. And made me question the expectations I have about museum spaces, object display, and that of ancient artifacts specifically. Normally, we view such objects in darkly painted, dim galleries with serifed wall texts, spotlights, and churchlike solemnity. I feel humbled to be in the presence of such objects, but on further reflection, at the same time, I also don’t feel much of a connection to the culture that produced them. Sterile display devices can leech life from objects.

    I came to realize that LACMA has, in this installation, refused to pretend that traditional display conventions are somehow neutral or natural to the display ancient artifacts. Instead, with the help of artist Jorge Pardo, it risks to say that all framing devices, even or especially “traditional” ones, are laden with contemporary values, which in turn impact the way we view objects. By so overtly using contemporary culture—which by its nature is consumptive—as a framing device for its Ancient American collection, LACMA makes a provocative contribution to a discussion all museums should be having.

    Back to Pardo, and my second shocking view: still standing outside the exhibition entryway, looking down the central axis of the show. Warm light, sumptuous texture, color. And an axis of hideous, plastic-looking hanging lamps, but more on those later. Orange (to which I am preternaturally drawn) pulsated from within the room. Attraction and repulsion—because look at how dominant this design is in relation to the precious objects it contains—drew me in.

    I had a surprisingly different experience taking in the exhibition through wide views than I did from close-up. The three rooms of the exhibition, each in a different color palette of neo-Modern oranges and greens, are highly striated, first, by the band of lush curtain sections that hang from the ceiling about halfway down the walls; secondly, by the built-in display cases that undulate around the room, using the same spaced-apart pressboard layers employed at the entrance to the exhibition. The brightly lit rectangular windows of the display cases further stripe the room.

    I had heard huffs about the use of such bombastic colors—the acid-lime green in particular—which echoed in my ears as I looked around the room and thought, what do I really think about this? Do people scoff at the color because it flies in the face of museum display conventions, or because it’s simply awful? I was leaning toward the latter, in large part because compared to the bright candy colors of their backdrops, the artifacts seemed pale and dwarfed.

    But when I approached the cases, the visual experience changed. Up close, the intense colors of the case interiors filled my field of vision and the objects, especially some ceramic figures and figurative vessels from Western Mexico, swelled forth in a revelatory way. The bright oranges in particular made edges pop, their lines crisp and charged. In college I learned to revere such artifacts for the powerful and mysterious cultures they represent; Pardo’s design revealed how delightfully playful and completely far out some of the objects are, in addition to being masterful works of art and craft. I imagined the creative minds that made them, and the cultures that valued them, in a way I never had before.

    Above all, Jorge Pardo’s re-installation of the Ancient Americas gallery at LACMA raises important questions about conventions of display vs. what can work in new and challenging ways. It’s a risk for sure, that feel didn’t always succeed, but I was grateful and inspired that LACMA took it. It’s easy to do things because that’s the way they’ve always been done, and I believe many museums fall back on those conventions too readily. Pardo asked nearly scandalous questions: why are pedestals always rectangular? Why does going to an art museum feel like a death march sometimes? Pardo uses an unabashed enjoyment of color, texture, humor, and surprise—devices of “experience-based” retail and restaurant design (the installation bears a striking resemblance to Pinkberry)—to frame such very special objects in a way that far from irreverent, I found to be deeply responsive. For example, those undulating walls, over time, evoke monumental Olmec heads, topography, and graded hills included in architectural models. A wall text in the first room speaks of Ancient American “platforms, temples and residences in which specific structures corresponded symbolically to features of the natural landscape.” Elements of the exhibition began to coalesce, but not become oversimplified.

    Back out in the lobby, I understood something that hadn’t registered before: in the Diego Rivera Portrait of John Dunbar, imbedded in the entry-way potato wall, I noticed a small Pre-Columbian figurative sculpture situated behind Diego’s sitter, one highly similar to the West Mexican figures in the adjacent vitrine. I hadn’t noticed it before. Pointing to continuity and inspiration within Latin American artistic tradition, Pardo formed a bridge between the Ancient America galleries and the adjacent, more staid, Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art galleries.

    Throughout my experience, I was prodded to examine my feelings and assumptions about neo-Modernism, retail trends, my relationship with Ancient American culture, museums’ use of somatic attraction devices, and the ways we always frame culture in subjective, contemporary ways. Which is as much as I could want from an exhibition. I even started to get into those light fixtures a little.

Latest Comments (1)

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by Kathleen Mclean - January 10, 2009

Jeanne, it would be great to see the thumbnail image on the homepage. Thanks.

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