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A Postmortem in Pottery

Archaeologists have recently pieced together what Casas Grandes ceramics indicate about a complex culture.

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Casa Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest

The Art Institute of Chicago

More than 20 years ago, when I was teaching on the Navajo reservation in the northeast corner of Arizona, I climbed up an escarpment to see ancient figurative drawings in a niche in a cliff. These drawings of elongated trapezoidal people, some of which date back to 1500 BC, are evidence of the belief systems that continued through the first millennium AD in the American southwest and northern Mexico and influenced the pottery collected in the Art Institute's current "Casas Grandes" exhibit. The agricultural Pueblo believe that their ancestors came from the earth, and those faded scratchings on the rock, almost merging with it, seemed to document this event.

Encountering antiquities in situ can be an amazing experience. But the Art Institute has created a different kind of contemplative space. A mural of ancient figures very much like the ones I saw in southern Utah greets viewers at the show's entrance. Photographic murals show aerial views of two archaeological sites: the ruined cities of Chaco Canyon in western New Mexico and the Paquime settlement in Mexico. The sites' stark geometric patterns are echoed in the designs on the vessels, displayed in spotless, reflective vitrines. Semitransparent scrims on the walls also reflect the pots' designs, amplifying the visual dialogue of proliferating geometric shapes and animal and human forms in a process of metamorphosis; viewers can easily become entangled in the artifacts' conversations.

The exhibit includes some 120 vessels, half of which are in the Casas Grandes style while the other half represent earlier cultures. The Casas Grandes pots have never before been on display because the culture's settlements were excavated later than other sites, only in the last half century. Research indicates that sometime between 1100 and 1200 AD an extended drought drove cultures from the American southwest to the banks of the Casas Grandes River in central northern Mexico, where within three generations the large, sophisticated city of Paquime was built, flourishing between 1250 and 1475. Long believed to be the northern outpost of Mesoamerican cultures like the Olmec and the Aztec, Casas Grandes is now thought to be the southern outpost of cultures from the American southwest, blending their graphic styles with Mesoamerican mythology.

The pots are organized chronologically. The show begins with large, simple ollas (water vessels) made around 300 AD by the Hohokam, the first agricultural people in the southern part of what is now Arizona. It moves on to the Anasazi culture in northern Arizona and New Mexico, which began about 400 AD and continued to the 1500s, and the Mimbres culture, which appeared in 950 AD in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The Casas Grandes settlements represent a renaissance of these cultures. But after that culture failed, pottery making ceased until the late 19th century, when women took it up again (partly in response to the interest of early tourists), and the exhibit ends with these vessels. The pots' designs are not only mesmerizing but instructive, charting over centuries the region's migrations and the syntheses of aesthetic traditions, belief systems, social organizations, and means of social control.

The Anasazi's large, white kaolin- and carbon-painted vessels are products of a culture famous for its astro-archaeological ceremonial sites, centered in Chaco Canyon and meticulously aligned with lunar and solar risings. The severe drought precipitated the collapse of the complex, hierarchical Chacoan culture, producing intra- and extramural wars, disruption of trade, and eventual migration to Mexico. The pottery demonstrates wit and skill, elegantly balancing line, symmetry and asymmetry, positive and negative space, and the interaction between surface and volume. Jagged step patterns and curvilinear shapes move over the ollas to create designs at once simple and complex. Mazes and diamonds repeat and recombine in multiplying abstract delineations of something beyond our experience.

The designs of the Mimbres people are largely narrative. In comparison to the sober, intellectual Anasazi patterns, the Mimbres work seems lighthearted. Depictions of the occasional sex act, childbirth, and hunt and images of deer, quail, rabbits, and metamorphic beings (for example, birds that are part fish) move over the interiors of open bowls. Of course, this mythic iconography isn't as cheerful as it may look, recounting the terrors of sexuality, death, and birth--consider the image of a crane swallowing a decapitated human head. The Mimbres pots, which combine the Anasazi's dynamic abstractions with bird and animal motifs, are the precursors of Casas Grandes pottery.

The densely patterned, polychromed, burnished pots of Casas Grandes--black, white, and blood- or iron red--are covered with birds, clouds, human figures, and borrowed Mesoamerican images, such as the plumed serpent, which unites earth and sky in one being, and macaws or parrots, connected with the sun because of their colors. The logic of the geometric designs recalls the Anasazi's kinetic interactions between line, shape, motif, and cosmos, suggesting that the Casas Grandes culture had a similar social organization and belief system and also used symbolic images to legitimize power. Among the Casas Grandes jars are a few animal- or human-shaped pots, called effigies.

The surrealists, notably Max Ernst, prized Amerindian artifacts for their expression of the marvelous--of the dialectical relationship between reality and dreams. In what was called "primitive" art, the energy of direct connections between men, women, and cosmological powers was not suppressed. But artists and other creative people aren't the only ones who've taken real or imaginary possession of these works. So have academics--archaeologists, anthropologists, art historians--and high-end collectors (a companion exhibit of southwestern artifacts at Douglas Dawson ended recently). Meanwhile traditional Navajos shun the potsherds that are everywhere in the New Mexico-Arizona region: there are cultural injunctions against violating ruins and relics. Looters can legally be shot on sight because the artifacts are the heritage of the indigenous people and often scattered on sacred lands.

The Pueblo of the Rio Grande region and the Hopi are descended from the peoples who made the pots now enshrined in museums and galleries. Long before the colonists and cowboys arrived, these native cultures had complex civilizations and trade networks. Though the precise functions of these beautiful artifacts, their connections to the land and to their cultures, are obscured, the stories implicit in them reverberate through this collection. You don't have to be an archaeologist or a collector to find antiquities compelling: objects once functional, now classified as art, they were made by people both like and unlike us.

When: Through Sun 8/13

Where: Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan & Adams

Price: $12; $7 children, students, seniors. Kids under 12 free. Thursdays and Fridays 5-9 PM free.

Info: 312-443-3600

More: Related events include painting workshops and a free talk Thu 6/22, 7 PM, in Gallery 100

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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