A spacey-looking young man is hanging out at the Bowers Museum these days. He sits on a platform with his mouth open, his eyes staring vacantly and his arms crossed on his knees. It's a good bet this small fellow from Veracruz, Mexico, (and a second boy with a devilish grin) are actually on drug trips. But there's no need to call out the deprogrammers.
Carved into stone in the late classic and post-classic periods of Mesoamerican art (sometime between 750 and 1600) these zonked-looking figures are part of "Vision of the Shaman: Song of the Priest," an engrossing exhibition of objects from the Bowers' collection of pre-Columbian art. The show, which spans a huge slice of time--from about 1200 BC to the Spanish conquest of 1492--offers a glimpse of key aspects of Mesoamerican life, ranging from sacred ballgames to funeral rites.
Religion permeated every aspect of pre-Columbian life. Even ballgames were sacred because they were re-enactments of the eternal battle between the forces of life and the forces of death.
Never mind losing a multimillion-dollar contract. The Aztec games were really serious business in which the captain of the losing team was liable to be sacrificed to the gods. (Young men about to be sacrificed were given hallucinogenic drugs so they would die in good spirits.)
A pre-classic seated shaman figure made of clay (the shamans, or priests, served as intercessors with good and evil spirits) is a lively character. With one arm extended sideways, umpire style, his head turned in profile and his legs splayed, he seems to be attuned to every vibration of the cosmos.
Each image and design in pre-Columbian art is a physical manifestation of a myth or ritual by which the culture defined itself. The two heads on a clay incense burner made between 1200 and 1500 in what is now Costa Rica refer to many dual forces at work in the world: male and female, matter and energy, positive and negative. The empty-looking eyes in one sculpture mark the figure as a sun god; a shaman has a hunched back. A painted vase figure wearing a red scarf tips off the viewer that the scene is a sacrificial rite.
This exhibit, which condenses a great deal of information in manageable wall labels and presents a wisely limited number of individual pieces, offers a fine introduction to a huge subject. The sensitive installation by the Bowers' unsung hero, longtime exhibit designer Paul Johnson, accounts for much of the user-friendly appeal of the show.
In contrast, the small Native American Arts gallery offers a rather hectic overview of artifacts of numerous North American tribes, encompassing the Northern Plains, the Arctic, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and California. This exhibit serves mostly as an attractive display area for part of the museum's collection of baskets, pots, carvings and articles of clothing.
Viewers can make a few basic cross-cultural comparisons. For example, both the Alaskan Inuit and the Acagchemen tribe living near Catalina Island made soapstone carvings, but their subjects were (predictably) quite different. Northern motifs in carvings from 1940 and 1950 include whales, bears and bundled-up hunters; the Southern Californian Indians from about 1600 seem to have specialized in hook-like pelican heads.
The newly installed California and Orange County history galleries have a depressingly old-fashioned, macho feel. Broadly sympathetic and detailed treatment of minority cultures, which you can find at (for example) the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles, is absent here.
Old photographs, a crucifix, articles of clothing, cattle brands and such take us through the era of the missions and the rancheros (the land grants offered to Mexican citizens of good moral character by the Mexican government after it confiscated the mission properties).
Not a hint of revisionism spoils the traditional gung-ho picture. "Local Indians" were "employed as vaqueros (cowboys)," we read. Full stop. Not a word about exploitation.
The gossamer, gold-embroidered silk net mittens and mantilla comb that belonged to Dona Ysidora Pico Forster (wife of Don Juan Foster, the only non-Latino ranchero owner) look incongruous among all the rough wear.
But the most poignant display is the mock-up of the San Diego County field where the army of Andres Pico (brother of the Mexican governor) wiped out U.S. forces under Gen. Stephen W. Kearny in the Battle of San Pasqual in 1846. The shards of glass from a wine bottle, the dice, the good-luck thimble and the broken starfish are testimonies to human hopes and fears even more basic than nationalism.
In the upstairs gallery, we are suddenly plunked down in the bustling last century of Orange County history. Cheerful orange crate labels and harvesting implements, remnants of sporadic high culture and photographs of sturdy-looking city police with sample ribbons and medals tell the story strictly from a civic booster's point of view.
The fun part is at the end: an interactive video display that allows visitors to call up such topics as "Hughes," "Entertainment" and "Transportation."
The "Hughes" video turns out to be vintage films of a youthful Howard Hughes flying "the fastest plane in the world."