In search of Queztalcoatl at LACMA
Quetzalcoatl is a mythic beast.
He's also a man, or at least a man-god, according to historic and anthropological findings.
He has appeared everywhere in central and southern Mexico, from the temples of Teotihuacan to the grand structures of Chichen Itza, including the base of the Mayan city's iconic, central pyramid, El Castillo.
Quetzalcoatl has survived across political boundaries and through the centuries, even appearing in contemporary Mexican and Chicano art, literature and popular culture.
There are many manifestations of the feathered, or plumed, serpent, and some of them are currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico" features more than 200 objects, including painted codices, turquoise mosaics, pottery, gold, sculpted figures and textiles from Mexico, Europe and the United States. The extensive exhibition, housed in LACMA's 2-year-old Resnick Pavilion, runs through July 1.
"Children of the Plumed Serpent" is organized in five thematic sections, generally arranged chronologically. The show starts with "The World of Tula and Chichen Izta," opening with large sculptural pieces from these and other areas.
The first major work, "Architectural Ornament in the Form of a Cut Shell" (A.D. 1400-1521), is an intriguing artifact from Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), but it's not entirely clear how it represents Quetzalcoatl.
In fact, this seems to be a recurring quandary in the exhibition. So many interesting and ancient objects from Mexico's Postclassic (A.D. 900-1521) and early colonial periods are on display, but a surprising number are peripheral to the central theme and story of the plumed serpent, and many don't reference him at all. Even though we are in an exhibition exploring Queztalcoatl and his reach across territories and time, we're still left searching for the feathered serpent among the objects on view.
Of course, several sculptural works and codices (illustrated manuscripts) do directly reference or embody Queztalcoatl. The sculpted pieces are among the finest in the show, including "Rain-god vessel" (A.D. 1200-1500), a slip-painted ceramic from Colima; "Seated Figure of Quetzalcoatl" (A.D. 600-900), a ceramic from Veracruz; "Effigy Censer in the Form of the Maize God" (1200-1400), a slip-painted ceramic from YucatÃ¡n; and "Effigy Censer" (1200-1500), a ceramic with pigments from YucatÃ¡n. The detail and design in these works is amazing.
The stone "Bust of Quetzalcoatl" (1300-1521), on loan from the British Museum, is a rare and striking piece. With its hollowed mouth and eyes open as if in a trance, and serpent's coils with feathers writhing around its head, this sculpture conveys the cult-like status Quetzalcoatl commanded.
Other noteworthy pieces include a real human "Skull with Turquoise Mosaic" (1400-1521), a turquoise mosaic shield (1100-1521) and disk (1300-1521), and a gold collar necklace (1300-1500) from Oaxaca. While we're once again searching for Quetzalcoatl among the obscured figures in the turquoise shield and disk, both works are fascinating and tell the story of trade and interaction with the native people of the American Southwest, where turquoise is found and produced.
This exhibition leaves some important questions unanswered. If he's such a superpower stud, what can Quetzalcoatl do? What are his powers? For a contemporary audience immersed in and bombarded with superhero cinema, some simple explanations could go a long way toward bridging the centuries.
Also, the show's didactics tell us that "Today, the descendants of the Children of the Plumed Serpent continue to thrive in southern Mexico." If that's the case, where are the present-day manifestations of Queztalcoatl in this exhibition? It would have been cool and meaningful to see the plumed serpent in a contemporary mural, poster or design, as there are many examples of this in modern-day Mexican and Chicano art and culture.
Nonetheless, "Children of the Plumed Serpent" is a wide-ranging and stimulating exhibition, with more ancient work from Mexico than you're likely to see anywhere else in the United States. It's another example of the fine work former LACMA curator Virginia Fields accomplished. The Mesoamerican art scholar – who co-curated this show with Victoria Lyall and John Pohl – died last June at 58, and this was her final project.
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