LACMA’s Ilona Katzew muses on the worlds of ‘Contested Visions’

While coming of age as a Mexico City teenager, Ilona Katzew used to skip school to hang out in the capital’s ornate Baroque churches and treasure-stuffed museums. The experience was an education in itself, a sensory immersion in the soul of a city that was a teeming metropolis decades before Columbus set foot in the New World.

“Growing up in Mexico City I was always aware of the culture around me,” Katzew said during a recent interview at LACMA, where she serves as department head of Latin American art. “It was just something that I had in me, for better or for worse.”

Katzew has put that background to work repeatedly at LACMA with several popular, academically impressive shows that bridge antique and modern sensibilities. They include “Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico” in 2004, and “The Arts in Latin America: 1492-1820,” a 2007 production that Times art critic Christopher Knight dubbed a “landmark” for revealing both the ornamental pomp and “trippy” inventiveness of colonial art.


That perspective also is at the core of Katzew’s latest exhibition, “Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World.” Running through Jan. 29, “Contested Visions” affords a fascinating look at how the creative talents, spiritual beliefs and social systems of the Americas’ indigenous peoples cross-bred with those of the Spanish conquerors, giving birth to a strange new hybrid art.

Although standard accounts of “the Conquest” maintain that the invading Spaniards largely obliterated the indigenous empires of the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru, the real process was a far more complex one of “negotiation, contestation, accommodation,” Katzew said.

“It’s juridical, it’s social, it’s political, it’s religious,” she continued. “But it’s also through the arts, and that’s what I wanted to tease out through this exhibition.”

Despite her confessed serial truancy, Katzew hardly fits the profile of a juvenile dropout. Her face encircled in Botticellian ringlets, she’s a warm, gently humorous person who speaks in eloquent full paragraphs, slipping easily between Spanish and English. When she’s not in her LACMA office or working in the galleries, you may find Katzew at home writing fiction and scholarly papers or pursuing her interest in Asian philosophies and schools of meditation.

The grandchild of Polish immigrants, Katzew was raised in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood, today an upscale hipster citadel but at the time a middle-class European immigrant enclave. Although her native culture constantly surrounded her, Katzew said it wasn’t until she went to study in New York, where she received her doctorate at the Institute of Fine Arts in 2000, that her “sense of nostalgia and longing for Mexico really sharpened.”

“That’s when something that had been so visceral became an object of inquiry, and I just wanted to understand it from a different point of view.”

Previously guest curator at the Americas Society Art Gallery in New York, Katzew joined LACMA in 2000 as its first curator of Latin American art. Working with a team of two assistant curators, Katzew has helped flesh out LACMA’s holdings of Spanish colonial, as well modern and contemporary Latin American works, such as three important casta paintings by Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, as well as work by the contemporary Mexico City-based Belgian Conceptual artist Francis Alÿs.

One of Katzew’s curatorial achievements is to illuminate previously under-recognized affinities between ancient and modern art, said Michael Govan, the museum’s director. That in turn, he said, has served LACMA’s broader mission of presenting Latin American and Latino art in a continuum stretching from Olmec colossal heads to the sprawling 2008 show “Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement,” and the museum’s recent retrospective on the L.A. Chicano collective known as ASCO.

“It seems so clear when you see these images that this culture is still living,” Govan said of “Contested Visions.”

Katzew, who trained as a Modernist as well as a colonial specialist, agrees that certain ancient and contemporary Latin American art shares qualities that span the centuries. Pointing to some of the Incan abstract textile designs on view in “Contested Visions” she exclaimed, “That’s Op art in the making!”

Although certain themes of “Contested Visions” necessarily echo those of previous shows, Katzew believes the exhibition is “very different in many ways.” For starters, it took 10 years to assemble, due to challenges in culling objects from collections across Europe and the Americas, many in private collections, including fragile indigenous paper codices that rarely travel.

Taking a comparative view of the Spaniards’ two principal viceroyalties, based in Mexico (then called “New Spain”) and in Lima, Peru, the exhibition illustrates how indigenous artisans adapted their work to fit the demands of their new European masters, while cunningly preserving traditional methods and motifs.

It also shows how non-native artists struggled to depict life in the Americas, a world that most Europeans knew only from second- and third-hand accounts filled with fantastic tales of bizarre landscapes, mythical beasts and wild pagan inhabitants.

The roughly 200 artworks range from magnificent Chinese-style folding screens to a life-size fired-clay, eagle-costumed warrior from the museum of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. There are images of Roman Catholic saints made by indigenous artists from iridescent hummingbird feathers, whose exquisite workmanship awed the Spaniards. And there’s a fairly ludicrous 16th century painting of the New World, purportedly the first by a European artist.

“It’s pretty revelatory in the sense that you have this combination of rolling landscapes with cows that is so super-Dutch,” Katzew observed. “And then the conquerors and what they thought the natives would look like, just going around naked shooting arrows. And then after you go through those first [galleries] of the Aztec and the Inca, and you see how sophisticated these civilizations were.”

Finding new ways to make that pre-Columbian world speak to her adopted Los Angeles is the ambition of a woman who, in some ways, remains a chilanga del corazón — a Mexico City dweller at heart. “I go back all the time,” she said in Spanish, then added, in English: “It’s a place I have to go to charge up.”