First, the ringing endorsement--this exhibition is the most original, revealing, aesthetically gratifying exercise to materialize on these shores in many a moon. It is the half-year’s main candidate for imaginary awards for both Insights in Ancient Art and Revelations in Contemporary Consciousness.

What can it be? An arcane Egyptian style that anticipated Cubism by millenniums now unveiled at the County Museum? A kid from Agoura doing punk Praxiteles at the Museum of Contemporary Art?

Nay and nope.

This phenomenon is found at a museum not always perceived as an art museum, and in a form a few die-hards still refuse to recognize as art at all. It’s a sleeper, and that certainly adds to the way it sidles up and knocks our breath out in a whistle. But even after unexpectedness wears off enrichment lingers on.


The place is the spiffily quaint Southwest Museum high atop Museum Drive in Highland Park (exit the Pasadena Freeway at Avenue 43 and follow the signs--carefully, as they are rather small). The show is “Mimbres Pottery; Ancient Art of the American Southwest,” which remains on view to July 28 before mushing off to its next stop at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show has about 125 ceramic pots of no great pretension, aside from the fact that they contain what is arguably the greatest painting produced in North America before the arrival of the white conquerors.

The people who created this remarkable work lived in the southwest corner of modern New Mexico from roughly AD 100 to about 1150, when the culture just vanished. Scholars don’t know what happened. They don’t even know what the group called itself. We call them Mimbres People after the Spanish word for “willows,” the trees lining the little river where they clustered. The best guess as to their fate is that they failed from success.

Archeological remains suggest the Mimbrenos flourished, developing from hunter-gatherers living in isolated, defensive pit houses to cultivated cultivators inhabiting interlocking dwellings similar to the complexes we associate with the Pueblo Indians. For about 150 years after AD 1000, Mimbresland had a Golden Age that produced its marvelous art. Then the curve of rising population crossed the arc of falling natural resources as the culture slowly fizzled out through absorption into other clans, such as the huge Casas Grandes group that migrated from Mexico.

As if this ancient dissolution of Mimbres culture didn’t make its history murky enough, the problem has been exacerbated by the slowly dawning awareness that they made great art. Although still little known to the public, archeological study of Mimbres culture goes back to the 1880s, but it has never been as active as the rapacious energy exercised by pothunters in the service of aesthetic greed. Looting was intense in the 1930s but it reached its gluttonous apogee in the ‘70s when bulldozers literally strip-mined Mimbres sites, forever obliterating scholarly sources and actually smashing more art than was salvaged for the market.


Sacking has largely ceased in this decade, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of the Mimbres Foundation, a preservation organization spearheaded by veteran Los Angeles artist Tony Berlant, who is also credited as the inspiration behind the present exhibition. The cultural community owes Berlant a rather deep bow. (I suspect we also owe collector Ed Janss, but he does not crop up in the catalogue credits.)

The authentic interest of even all that fades compared to the fascination exercised by the objects. Primitive art regularly impresses us by its expressive power wedded to formal aptness. But Mimbres pottery operates out of a conceptual base so sophisticated that--with the fractional exception of some classic Greek ceramics--nothing in the Euro-American tradition touched it until recent experiments in perceptual art.

And what, pray tell, is this earth-shaking conception?

Mimbres people mainly only painted the insides of bowls. That sounds both lame and commonplace. What makes the practice special among Mimbres artists (almost certainly women, by the way) is that they conceived of the bowl interior not just as a nuisance format that happens to be round and concave but as a perceptual metaphor of the cosmos to be dealt with as space.


Where our Renaissance-inherited culture traditionally conceptualizes space as something to be wrestled into rational form as a rectilinear window-with-horizon-line, the Mimbres artist even surpassed our poetic conception of space as, “That inverted bowl they call the sky.”

The most numerically commonplace sort of Mimbres pot painting is a purely abstract rendering of symmetrically arranged geometric forms, triangles, zigzags, swooping loops and the like. These would be special if they never got past some almost shockingly bold compositional moves such as sudden, jarring linear stops or whole designs just terminated midway in a pot or compositions so dynamic that they achieve the purely visual excitement of our Op art of the ‘60s. They also soon leave it in the dust by adding symbolic-kinetic overtones that make the paintings function as metaphors of the ordering of the universal maelstrom. It’s like Genesis. Here, however, the darkness is never quite separated from the light, but held in uneasy balance by the magic of the human mind successfully supplicating the world of the spirits.

Now any reasonable person can be forgiven for mumbling, “Give me a break. I grant you this is terrific design but reading all that other stuff into it sounds like occult mumbo jumbo.”

We constantly shortchange tribal art because it is our great virtue to sort experience into one-thing-at-a-time while it is evidently their great virtue to perceive all-at-once.


Another category of pot serves the point. Here figural imagery fuses hallucinations in and out of geometric design. (Such was the command these artists exercised over their pictorial space that they made hard-edge forms play in woozy zoom shots.) Here comes a bat and there goes a bifurcating bunny and it honestly feels like another big event in Genesis, the creation of separate living things within the universal flux.

Finally, there is that group of works we tend to be attracted to because of our cultural bias toward figurative art and because the Mimbres version of it looks so similar to (and so much better than) primal-style Neo-Expressionism. According to one catalogue essayist, the Mimbres people may have shared our evaluation of the figurative bowls. Few of them were traded to outsiders and they seemed to have been favored for the special function of being buried with the dead.

(Incidentally, viewers are often puzzled by the fact that many vessels have a small hole knocked in the bottom. Evidently they were ritually “killed” in this way as part of the internment rites. The dead were most often buried under the floor of the family house.)

According to our standards, the Mimbres figurative work can become occasionally too emblematic or a trifle odd, as if they had discovered “reality” and found it nearly as absurd as it seems today.


Absurd? How could American Indians know from absurd? They never read Sarte. The Second Great Error we make about tribal people is to accord them such spiritual elevation that they are not permitted a sense of humor, irony or perversity. There is ample evidence here that they experienced all of them in plenty. It is fascinating to watch the Mimbres artist try to deal with his cosmological bowl space “realistically” as we deal with ours.

Often their solutions are brilliant. A rendering of a burdened man looking at butterflies captures his poetic envy of their buoyancy (and solving the spatial problem) by showing the scene looking down from the butterflies’ perspective. A dizzyingly strong solution shows a man spinning a bull-roarer, dramatizing both the depth of the bowl-space and the circular format.

One work starts making no sense at all and ends as a shockingly bizarre and apt solution. It depicts a row of bugs and two masked faces. It all appears upside down until we remember that these burial bowls were placed over the face of the deceased. From the point of view of the departed, it is an accurate depiction of bugs crawling on the ceiling while two macabre spirits stare down at him.

What a people they must have been: blunt, sensitive, funny and reverent.


This landmark exhibition comes with a handsome catalogue containing crisply readable essays by Berlant, Steven LeBlanc, Catherine Scott and J. J. Brody.