'Plumed Serpent' tracks the complex tale of a wandering deity

Over at the Getty Villa, a fantastic hybrid sculpture is holding court in a powerful exhibition that explores the ancient Mediterranean goddess Aphrodite. Based on a lost Greek original, a 1st century Roman carving of an exquisite hermaphrodite, part man and part woman, seductively writhes in a self-possessed erotic dream.

Not to be outdone, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently opened a similarly dazzling show centered on another ancient hybrid being -- this one a plumed serpent. In southern Mexico, an Earth-bound snake covered with the feathers of a sky-soaring bird was central to pre-Columbian mythology.

In the complication department, Greek and Roman myths have nothing on pre-Columbian cosmology. The feathered-serpent deity found its human form in Quetzalcoatl, and he's bedeviled many modern observers. D.H. Lawrencemade the supernatural entity a symbol of violent sexuality and female submission in a controversial late novel. Mormon leader John Taylor, describing Quetzalcoatl's virgin birth, capacity for performing miracles and dual nature as both human and god, insisted in an 1892 treatise that Jesus and the earthly incarnation of the plumed serpent were surely one and the same person.

Taylor's audacious claim might come to mind near the end of LACMA's sizable show, where an elegantly patterned carving of a coiled plumed serpent had its volcanic stone head knocked off and its body hollowed out to form a big, shallow bowl. The imposing object turns out to be a 16th century baptismal font, a pagan sculpture re-purposed by Spanish Catholic conquerors for a Christian ritual.

"Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico" tracks the complex tale of the wandering deity, who is associated with the Toltec, Mixtec, Nahua, Mayan, Zapotec and other societies. With many stunning loans, it brings together 218 sculptures, ceramics, painted manuscripts, textiles, body ornaments and more, all fashioned after the 10th century.

They represent a wide swath of Mesoamerica between Tula, about 50 miles northwest of modern Mexico City, and Chichen Itza, near the tip of the Yucatan peninsula, and on into Central America. Numerous "wow" moments will be encountered, starting right inside the front door.

There, a sculpture fragment from a Tula temple is an arresting example of stately pageantry and muscular authority. Although nearly 6 feet tall, it consists of just two feet and a pair of sturdy legs cut off at the knees.

The fragment is the lower portion of a warrior figure, which would have been one of several monumental columns holding up a temple roof. Side by side, the stiff, ramrod-straight legs allow no space to separate them, visually creating a near-solid mass. Their bulk, interrupted only by the faintest shadows from slight mounds suggesting knees, is further enhanced by square-cut toes and rectilinear contours. The geometric shapes make them appear to have been cut from an impassive, immovable block.

Even the decorative straps and elegant, diamond-shaped patterns of woven-reed sandals wrapped around the heels enhance the feeling of ritual import. Reeds are common to a region where two major, life-giving rivers join. The repetitions inherent to any ritual invoke nature's eternal cycles.

Nearby a smaller but complete standing figure — this one a 3-foot-tall stone base for a throne — offers an idea of what the complete warrior column might have looked like. Yet notice where the base is from: Rather than Tula, the throne support was carved 800 miles away in the Yucatan. Which of these two cultural centers came first has been a matter of some scholarly dispute, but the remarkable similarity of these two sculptures surely reflects the spread of one style over a vast territory. Ancient trade routes were active.

Some of the most beautiful works are among the smallest and most fragile. A group of 5- and 6-inch ceramic vessels are formed in the shapes of stylized animals — dog, bat, toad and even a man's bulbous-nosed head, apparently swallowed whole by a serpent whose jaws open wide to reveal his dinner. (It could also be a man dressed in serpent guise.) Naturalism is set aside in favor of schematic abstraction, as if the goal was to render animal essence.

Sometimes human attributes merge with animal ones, as when an arm reaches out from one vessel's body to grab an aardvark-like coati's snout. A toad presses its front feet together like hands, recalling a bemused observer waiting to be called into action.

Made with an iron-rich slip-glaze that turns glassy during firing, the surfaces sparkle, adding sleek elegance to humble clay. Archeologists have found these lustrous ceramics far and wide, which further implies trading, and they may have been luxury goods. All that glitters is not gold.

LACMA curator Victoria Lyall — who ably organized the show with her late museum colleague, Virginia Fields (to whom the show is posthumously dedicated), and guest curator John M. D. Pohl from UCLA — writes in the excellent catalog that these animal vessels "captured the imagination of 10th-century trendsetters in much the same way that iPods have with 21st-century consumers." It's easy to see why.

Things get even more complicated in an elaborately painted vessel from Colima, an area south of Puerto Vallarta and not far from the Pacific Coast. A crouching figure portrays a warrior (note the small club in his right hand, the little shield on the left wrist and the growling coyote helmet) merged with an otherworldly deity (the mustache and long fangs of the face mask identify a rain god). This gorgeous vessel records a double-duty impersonation, fusing power in opposing realms of heaven and Earth.

One nice feature of the show is the way it deals with all this relatively arcane cosmology. If you don't know your Tlaloc from your Tonatiuh or your Xolotl from your Xochipilli, never mind a quechquémitl from a huipil, it's as easy to get lost in Mesoamerican metaphysics as it is in the philosophical soap operas enacted on Mount Olympus. Rather than employing dense explanatory labels, the museum gives pride of place to the objects.

Formal emphasis allows for a general understanding of the emergence of an authentic international style. Divided into five sections in a spare installation, things have room to breathe. Simple pedestals and display cases are minimalist in design. Careful juxtapositions draw resonant visual connections across space and time.

If the show sputters a bit in the last room, that's only because Quetzalcoatl's story doesn't have a definitive ending. Unlike the more familiar Aztec culture in central Mexico, the children of the plumed serpent continued on after Hernán Cortés and his Spanish cohorts arrived on the Gulf Coast in the spring of 1519. They resisted domination, actively engaging in commerce. It helped that the largest gold and silver deposits fueling much of the invaders' brutality towards indigenous people were not located in southern Mexico.

But to see the continuity manifest in art, check out the diaphanous, white-on-white Oaxacan textile where Quetzalcoatl meets the King of Spain: The patterns include both an abstract snake and a double-headed Hapsburg eagle. It was woven in 2010 by Zenaida Pérez Mendoza — the show's only named artist.

'Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico'

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Through July 1. Closed Wednesdays.

Contact: (323) 857-6000, http://www.lacma.org

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