Feature

Exhibit of the week: Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico

The first exhibit at the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—inaugurated this past September—celebrates the art of the Olmec empire.

Through Jan. 9, 2011Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“The biggest single event” of the fall art season in Southern California was the recent opening of a dazzling addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said Richard Chang in the Orange County, Calif., Register. The Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, designed by architect Renzo Piano to be the largest naturally lit museum space in the world, was inaugurated in late September with a gala attended by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Earning nearly as many double-takes that night, though, were two enormous heads carved from volcanic rock some 3,000 years ago. These striking visages serve as centerpieces of a show that celebrates the colossal art of Mesoamerica’s first civilization, the Olmec empire.

This extraordinary display—“the first show of its kind ever on the West Coast”—is well served by the new pavilion’s “abundance of natural light,” said Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. The 6-foot-tall basalt head that greets visitors to the exhibit “is at once fearsome and mesmerizing, its stare an epic gaze across time.” Astonishingly, this possible tribute to an Olmec ruler was created “without benefit of metal tools.” Instead, Olmec craftsmen used stone, sand, and other abrasives to render the figure’s “furrowed brow, almond eyes, broad nose, and full, slightly parted lips.” Similar methods were used to create other large sculptural figures nearby, including a pair of “monumental stone twins kneeling before a fierce feline.”

Yet Olmec artists “also excelled on a smaller scale,” said Kelly Crow in The Wall Street Journal. They “commonly carved white and green jade into pendants or figurines,” and this exhibit also features a cluster of ornate stone ax heads, probably used as offerings to the gods. One 16-inch-tall ax head, nicknamed “El Bebé,” seems to be bawling so furiously that you wish you could soothe it. Look closely and you can also see that the baby is holding a miniature ax against its own chest. Such attention to detail is remarkable, and yet one has to be careful not to focus on surface appearances only. Some Olmec art features imagery “that suggests human sacrifice” was practiced to appease the gods, and El Bebé almost cries out to be interpreted just that way.

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