Lovely to look at, but little to be learned

Special to The Times

"Glorious Treasures: 100 Years of Collecting by the Southwest Museum" is a whirlwind tour of two continents and nearly 2,000 years of history. Beginning in what now is Arizona and New Mexico, the exhibition at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage travels from the central valleys of California to the icy tundra of northern Canada and the lush rain forests of eastern Ecuador.

Along the way, stopovers are made in diverse communities in the Pacific Northwest, across the Great Plains, around the Great Lakes and in what now is Mexico, Panama and Guatemala. If the thousands of miles covered by the exhibit's ambitious itinerary don't incite wanderlust, the centuries spanned by its highlights-only format surely will set your head spinning.

Take, for example, the show's oddest juxtaposition: a black velvet dress from the 1960s and a ritual object depicting a squat male athlete from the 5th century. Both were made in Mexico. Both were components of formal social occasions that provided respite from the tedious toil of the workaday world.

But to glance from one artifact to the other is to experience imaginative whiplash and intellectual vertigo. Neither sheds any light on the other.

The dress, embroidered with brilliant silk-floss flowers and embellished with a white lace shawl and trim, would not be out of place in a contemporary fashion show. Many women in Oaxaca, Mexico, wear similar if less elaborately stitched outfits at festivals, ceremonies and folkloric dances.

In contrast, the Nayarit clay sculpture is from a long-lost world so mysterious that archeologists and anthropologists do not agree on its meaning. Debates still rage about the political and metaphysical import of such ceremonial statues, as well as the function of athletic contests and the role of the contestants this piece represents.

All that links the pleated dress and the regal ballplayer are their rarity and exoticism. You don't have to be a fashionista to marvel at the labor-intensive stitchery of the dazzling dress. Nor do you have to be a cultural historian to be fascinated by the figure's primitive elegance, especially the ornaments in his pierced nose and ears and the faded patterns painted on his vest and headdress. Unfortunately, that's all the show asks of viewers.

"Glorious Treasures" provides less information about its priceless objects than typically is found on the back of a postcard. This suggests that museum visitors are superficial tourists, not people interested in delving more deeply into a subject but folks so pressed for time that it's impossible to do more than skim the surface of the magnificent things before us.

There's nothing wrong with looking at art or artifacts in this way. Quickly scanning objects as you stroll through gallery after gallery is one of the pleasures of exhibitions. It's also one of the joys of visiting big museums.

Yet that's what is so frustrating about "Glorious Treasures." It condescends to viewers by forcing us to look at its works in only one way: as an impressive inventory. Rarely are such socially significant objects treated so shamelessly as loot.

On the upside, loot isn't boring. People from different cultures -- who may not understand one another -- agree on one thing about such magnificent pieces: They want them. The reasons why, however, are diverse and often incompatible. Although the show is clear on the desire (the overwhelming majority of its pieces are fantastic), it says very little about the objects themselves.

"Glorious Treasures" presents about 90 vessels, baskets, blankets, garments and tools. Some of the standouts include a large Hopi jar (circa 1900) with images of kachinas painted on its exterior; a nearly 100-year-old trough-size feast dish carved from wood by the Kwalhioqua/Kwakiutl of the Columbia River plateau to resemble a grinning fish; and a nearly 2,000-year-old Chiriqui offering vessel whose three legs represent three men. Their casual postures are so natural that they could be hanging around any plaza or town square today.

A big Apache basket, made of coiled willow and martynia in the 19th century, features zigzagged patterns interspersed with silhouetted men, women and animals. Woven from wool introduced by the Spanish, Navajo blankets, rugs, ponchos and sashes are and beautifully designed. The beadwork in Winnebago and Ojibwa bandolier bags and a Yakama vest flirt with symmetry yet skirt its orderly perfection by including a few kinks in the mix. And a bone knife, used for cutting blocks of snow by the Arctic-dwelling Inupiat, is incised with a delicate line drawing of an icy Eden, complete with two fishermen, two fish, two birds, two plants, six insects and four furry animals.

The exhibition inaugurates the Autry National Center, formed by the joining of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage and the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. It isn't an auspicious debut. As a whole, it's less interesting than the sum of its parts. The treasures are glorious, but the way they are presented is less ambitious than ignoble.


'Glorious Treasures'

Where: Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles

When: Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Ends: July 4

Price: $7.50; students and seniors, $5; children, $3.

Contact: (323) 667-2000

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