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Anonymous Folk Artists Get a Showcase : Mexican art: 135 Rockefeller Collection pieces in Craft and Folk Art Museum exhibit complement LACMA’s upcoming, massive show.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While great painters like Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and David Alfaro Siqueiros occupy the front lines in discussions on Mexican art, many cultural observers have also been drawn to the works of Mexico’s anonymous folk artists--the generations of men and women who work in villages producing their own traditional forms of art for religious, recreational or everyday use.

These artists are the focus of “Folk Treasures of Mexico: Highlights From the Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection,” a major exhibition of 135 mostly unattributed objects such as ceremonial masks, religious retablo paintings, carved animal figures, whimsical toys and elaborately decorated clay pottery.

The show, which opens to the public at the Craft and Folk Art Museum today, represents “the creme de la creme , the very best” of what is perhaps the country’s premier folk-art collection, according to Marion Oettinger, curator of folk and Latin American art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, which now owns the lion’s share of Rockefeller’s 3,000-piece folk-art collection.

The exhibition, which Oettinger mounted in 1990 to commemorate the publication of his now-popular coffee-table book on the collection, is midway through a U.S. tour. Its showing in Los Angeles--sponsored by the Los Angeles Times/Nuestro Tiempo through a grant from the Times Mirror Foundation--complements the L.A. County Museum of Art’s upcoming presentation of the massive show “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries,” which opens Oct. 6.

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“It was very important that the two exhibitions appear in Los Angeles simultaneously,” said Oettinger, whose museum showed “Splendors” earlier this year. “If you want to have an overview of the arts of Mexico you can’t do it without folk art. One of the complaints in the reviews of ‘Splendors’ in New York (the show premiered at the Metropolitan Museum) was that it omitted folk art--there certainly are some folk pieces, but mostly it’s elite art done for churches or things done by academic painters. To get the true range of the Mexican aesthetic you really need the other art that’s provincial and that responds to local taste.”

Folk art was important to many of the artists represented in the “Splendors” show, including Rivera, who collected folk art for inspiration, Oettinger said.

"(Folk art) is a very important window on Mexican society. This is art that is really integrated into society,” he said. “It’s real mainstream material--it’s part of ritual, part of dating, part of courtship, marriage and death--it’s a barometer of the values of the community.”

The works included in “Folk Treasures” date from the 18th through the 20th centuries and include several rare and historically significant works, ranging from an 18th-Century centurion mask worn to represent a Roman guard leading Christ to Calvary, to a more contemporary grouping of five intricate conchero musician puppets that commemorate an actual performance in honor of an important saint. The exhibition was culled from the 2,500 Rockefeller pieces donated to the San Antonio Museum in 1982, following the former vice president’s death in 1979.

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At the time, several institutions--including the Craft and Folk Art Museum and Highland Park’s Southwest Museum--had vied for the prestigious collection, amassed by Rockefeller over nearly 50 years.

Patrick Ela, director of the Craft and Folk Art Museum, remembered competing for the collection, and acknowledged that his current showing of its highlights--all works that have never before been shown in Los Angeles--is bittersweet.

“But it feels wonderful to finally be showing it,” he said. “Of course when you see how beautiful the objects are, you feel a sense of longing to have them in your own collection. But this is the next best thing.”

The 500 pieces in the Rockefeller collection that did not go to San Antonio, including more contemporary works created in the last 50 years, went to San Francisco’s Mexican Museum.

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Three hundred and fifty works from that collection--including a number of attributed pieces such as Oaxacan artist Teodora Blanco’s natural clay ceramic dolls and Jaliscan artist Julian Acero’s pair of colorful ceramic glazed lions--will be on view simultaneously with the Craft and Folk Art Museum show in “The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection of Mexican Folk Art,” opening at the Cal State Northridge Art Gallery Monday through Oct. 26. That show was last seen in Los Angeles in 1987 at the Southwest Museum.

While the craft and folk art show focuses more on historical works, including several folk paintings, Cal State Northridge’s contemporary material is heavily based in ceramics. In addition, the two shows will provide varying styles of presenting the folk art--CSN uses a marketplace-like installation, in an attempt to show the objects as they are still seen in Mexico today; whereas the Craft and Folk Art Museum presents its works in a more museum-like setting, divided into categories such as recreational, religious or utilitarian objects, and uses several murals and painted illustrations to depict the periods from which the objects come.

“Folk Treasures of Mexico: Highlights from the Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection,” Craft and Folk Art Museum, corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, May Co . , 4th floor, (213) 937-5544. Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Today through Dec. 29. “The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection of Mexican Folk Art,” Cal State Northridge Art Gallery, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge, (818) 885-2156. Mon. and Sat., noon-4 p.m.; Tue.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Oct. 26.


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