SKEPTICS have wondered if the exhibit "Mexico - Splendors of Thirty Centuries" was merely political glad-handing in the guise of a cultural exchange. That's because of the unusual fanfare accompanying this show: visiting international dignitaries, endorsement from multinational corporations, high-brow functions with, of all things, female parking valets made up and dressed like Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Fanfare and motives aside, when we peel back the wrapping, the exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an impressive one, consisting of nearly 400 works spanning 3,000 years of art. "Splendors" traces the seismic historical, social, and artistic ruptures that make up Mexican culture.
This look south is welcome and overdue. In the United States since the 1970s, barriers that separate cultures into "us" and "them" have been challenged; more recently, walls dividing world cultures have fallen, forcing people to acknowledge that the more we are different the more we are the same.
Nowhere is this ethnic confluence more apparent than in Mexico. Mexico bridges our young Yankee culture to advanced Indian civilizations that dominated this hemisphere long before the sight of a colonist.
As our nearest neighbor with strong ties to Spain, Mexico also connects the US to the long European heritage with which it identifies most strongly. And perhaps more to the point, the populations of many US urban centers are now 40 percent Mexican or Latin American.
The Mexico which "Splendors" opens up for Americans includes four chronological periods: the pre-Columbian dating from about 1000 BC to 1520 AD; the time of Spanish rule from about 1520 to 1821; the 19th century and the 20th century.
What this survey lacks in depth (there are too few works per era), it makes up for in a sweeping lateral breadth which covers this rapidly changing, polyglot society - first, Indian then Spanish, polytheistic then Christian, indigenous then foreign, hierarchical then fiercely egalitarian. And for all this exotic interbreeding, "Splendors" leaves us with a feel for an ineffable Mexican sensibility, both potent and notably consistent.
The stunning pre-Columbian works on view are a high point, perhaps because they exude what Mexican poet Octavio Paz calls a "radical otherness," something so unfamiliar to us that it is almost incomprehensible.
Classical pre-Columbian culture is sampled through art objects and architectural remains excavated from progressively advanced cities dating from as early as 1000 BC to 1521 when the Spaniards arrived. At sites such as Teotihuacan, Tajin, the Mayan city Palenque, and the Aztec city Tenochtitlan there appears complex, highly ordered temple architecture as well as small-scale art objects notable for their formal and conceptual complexity.
The pre-Columbian art on view depicts a dizzying array of gods, kings, man-animal hybrids, and incarnate natural forces.
The religious, decorative, and utilitarian objects freely merge figures, symbols, designs, and functional elements.
Human figures are typically woven into architecture or coiled with foliage or animal forms, expressing the strong native belief in a tightly interrelated universe, of which man is not the center but one part of a huge circle.
The art of the Spanish conquest and the 17th century is predictably non-Indian. Spanish missionaries hoped to bring Christ to the Indians, and secular Spanish adventurers schemed for power and riches. …