Jorge Pardo’s Pre-Columbian art installation at LACMA

Times Art Critic

Conceptually sophisticated and visually smashing, the installation design that artist Jorge Pardo conceived and executed for the impressive Pre-Columbian collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was unveiled to the public Sunday. Unlike anything you’ve seen in an art museum before, it’s built on a deep understanding of the potential power of smart decoration.

To decorate is not just to embellish but to valorize. LACMA’s often exceptional collection of ancient art deserves nothing less -- especially the fine ceramic vessels and sculptures from West Mexico, Central America and Colombia. Pardo’s eccentric, unexpected scheme delivers.

It accomplishes two feats. Obscure works of ancient art are elucidated, and so is our contemporary experience of them. This decorative installation design is a meaningful honorific, not an empty flourish.

Yet, there is also an inescapable practical problem here -- and it’s not a small one. Pardo’s design may be visually and conceptually powerful, but a serious functional flaw interferes: In several instances, it’s impossible to see the art.

We’ll get to the details of that rather startling defect in a moment. But first, the good news.

The Pre-Columbian installation signals a welcome new LACMA emphasis on Latin American art. So does the modest but handsome display of Spanish Colonial art adjacent, including recent acquisitions by such important 17th and 18th century Mexican artists as Miguel Cabrera, José de Ibarra, José de Páez and Nicolás Rodriguez Juárez, as well as an unknown artist whose exceptional four-panel screen depicts an Indian wedding.

A gallery for Diego Rivera and another featuring Rufino Tamayo introduce conflicting Modern visions. A contemporary gallery highlights three strong works by Francis Alÿs, a Belgian-born artist long-resident in Mexico City, which represents a major museum commitment to a major artist.

But Pardo’s unusual design for the Pre-Columbian galleries claims our initial attention. It evokes an improbable fusion: A gritty cavern deep inside the earth has been crossed with a high-style urban lounge. The cave tells us something about where this art came from. The hip urbanism tells us something about where we are coming from -- about our cultural expectations today.

A sizable portion of LACMA’s Pre-Columbian collection was excavated from burial chambers in Colima, Nayarit and other regions around Jalisco in modern-day Mexico, civilizations that flourished more than 1,500 years ago. Like many ancient societies around the world, Meso-Americans buried tools, toys, sculptural representations of daily life, ornaments, vessels and other useful objects in tombs. They also believed their ancestors lived in remote caves.

Pardo designed display cases that undulate and swell out from the walls like fanciful, weather-smoothed rock formations. The laser-cut organic forms stand in sharp contrast to the rectangular display cases found in most art museums. Those derive from finely crafted European furniture.

Pardo’s are built from thick, stacked sheets of medium-density fiberboard (MDF), an engineered wood-product, with spacing of equal thickness in between the 70-plus layers. Placed around the perimeter of three galleries, the elaborate casework evokes cavern walls rather than palace furniture.

In a few places the undulations form benches. Elsewhere they flatten out to hold explanatory wall texts or, at the entrance, a Rivera painting. Free-standing pedestals are composed from stacks of undulating MDF, like rough-hewn stalagmites.

The pedestals’ tops and the display cases’ interiors are painted lime green, sandy brown, citrus orange and other tropical and neutral colors. The rooms have very high ceilings, which Pardo visually lowered with taffeta curtains that follow the casework undulations. The fabric colors likewise follow what’s inside the casework.

Finally, 10 pendant lamps adorn the three galleries, suspended in a line that runs like a spine through the center of the space. (Alas, they weren’t illuminated when I visited.) Lamps are a staple of Pardo’s work as a sculptor. Here, their shape seems to derive from the so-called Artichoke pendant lamp, a famous Danish Modern design by Poul Henningsen that disperses light by reflecting it off six dozen cascading leaves.

But Pardo’s lamps are less artichokes than exotic orchids. Rather than white metal, the perforated and laser-cut plastic echoes the colors of the fabric “skirt” overhead, elaborating the vegetal association while underscoring the festive atmosphere. The overall design is not Plato’s cave, it’s the Conga Room or the Copa -- a salsa-sassy bit of Postmodern Carmen Miranda.

However unusual it all sounds -- and, in fact, looks -- the elaborate styling couldn’t be more apt. LACMA curator Virginia Fields organized the collection by themes, such as “Supernatural Beings” and “How Artists Made Objects,” since a display by region and chronology requires more comprehensive holdings than the museum owns. (Pre-Columbian art spans 3,000 years and vast territory.) But one display near the start explains how Meso-American cities were designed to evoke nature -- pyramids as sacred mountains, for example, and plazas as symbolic lakes. Pardo’s cavernous design likewise reflects the natural landscape -- but urbanized for 21st century tastes rather than in imitation of the long-gone Pre-Columbian era.

That’s the difference between art and kitsch. Typical museums put objects inside old-fashioned furniture, or else they create theme-park versions of Pre-Columbian style.

Instead, Pardo’s savvy design-art teases out something else. Not unlike our Pre-Columbian forebears, whose artifacts we have come to see, we also believe our ancestors live somewhere. Not in caves, but in museums, they reside in the works of art we lay to rest there.

So, what’s the functional flaw in Pardo’s delirious ointment? Several display cases make it harder than usual to see what’s inside, sometimes even obliterating the view.

They are fronted with sheets of plexiglass that follow the cases’ undulating facades, while the pedestals are topped by round or oval plexiglass tubes. That means the acrylic bends, sending light-reflective ripples and arcs across sightlines into the display.

It’s worst at the entry, where natural light from the glass-walled third-floor lobby turns the plexiglass into the equivalent of a fun-house mirror. Three extraordinary works from the great Proctor Stafford Collection that LACMA acquired in 1986 disappear behind your warped reflection. That’s a shame.

Also in the entry, Rivera’s fine 1931 society portrait of his friend, John Dunbar, shows the New York real estate mogul seated in a handcrafted Mexican chair reading a book, with a large, austere West Mexican ceramic figure standing like a sentinel beside him. Rivera, a helpful label notes, organized the first major museum show of such art in 1946, at Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts. The Proctor Stafford figures are in the display case adjacent, but the curatorial point is physically obscured by the wobbly plexiglass.

The problem’s severity waxes and wanes throughout the galleries. Can it be fixed? Non-glare acrylic must be flat, so the casework would need to be altered. The Pre-Columbian installation is experimental and not permanent (no closing date has been announced), but the best solution would be to remove the plexiglass.

Security concerns might prevent that. But a story Wednesday in Britain’s Guardian newspaper asserted that museum art stands a far greater chance of being damaged by curators and installers than by visitors. I wonder whether LACMA’s insurance company would agree?