Pueblo Post-Modern

(Photo: Casas Grandes vessel. Credit: Yale University Press.)

From the way the Art Institute of Chicago talks about its latest temporary show, Casas Grandes, you might decide to give the exhibition of ancient North American pottery a pass. You’d miss out on some surprisingly modern fun–as, apparently, did the show’s curators.

Casas Grandes names a pre-Columbian native civilization that existed 500 to 700 years ago in the area that’s now the American southwest and northern Mexico. They existed on the land where in previous centuries flourished other great civilizations like the Hohokam and the Anasazi.

Don’t hit the snooze button yet, I swear this is way cooler than it sounds. All of these peoples had a pottery tradition so distinct each piece practically screamed the name of the tribes who made it. Very classic. Very ordered. Very nice–but, very pat.

And then came Casas Grandes. And like the (much-maligned) coming of the late-20th Century Post-Modern architecture trend, everything exploded. Every previous style became fodder for a design ethic that sought to riff off the past while grooving into the future. Images and icons and stylistic elements from all the previous peoples were used by Casas Grandes artisans in unexpected, swirly juxtaposed, breathless, and stunning new ways. In Casas Grandes pottery, you see the art that came before, but you’re aware these artisans have stepped into what, for them, must have been a helluva modern-art age.

Sadly, at every turn the Art Institute’s descriptions — on every wall and display case — miss this entirely. Instead, you get powdery dry treatises on the myriad possible meanings (sometimes saying “we don’t know” is a better option) of every dusty idea the curators think is behind each piece. And, surprise, as usual we think they’re all religious. Uh-huh.

Meanwhile, the shift into modernity that the art on display represents is never – even – recognized. The word, tradition, is used about 100 times. The word, art, however, almost never appears.

And that’s a shame. Because one walk into the Casas Grandes gallery, and you’d swear it was 1950s America and Charlie Parker was blowing mod jazz behind a giant Olla somewhere. Why is it that Western thought never conceives of any idea of the modern beyond its own?

Go see this exhibit. Read the pamphlet you’ll find at the door, it sets everything up. But to really appreciate the veritable hipness of the art on display, trust me on this. Read nothing else…

Well, actually, read the book :-)

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