In the final pre-Columbian hours, the civilizations of the Americas were in full flower, with glorious art-making workshops whose products fueled economies and created extensive trade routes that crossed three continents.
Turquoise moved south from the North American deserts, and gold moved north from South America. Ceramics, textiles and sculptural objects circulated from the center. Then the Spanish landed, and that was the end of that.
There was little left after the invading gold-diggers sent the most precious objects back to Europe and then systematically destroyed the temples, pyramids and palaces, but over the centuries, some exquisitely fine examples of crafts from the indigenous cultures have been found. A remarkable display of the best has been assembled at the Dallas Museum of Art, under the banner "The Legacy of the Plumed Serpent in Ancient Mexico." The plumed serpent is also known as Quetzalcoatl. The exhibit was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and, as with the last pre-Columbian exhibition from that institution, there are problems.
The art objects are superb, but there is scant narrative explaining who the figures are, what they represent or how the objects were used. There is an accompanying catalog, but it sheds no light on the big picture and basic questions. Instead, it mines minutiae of new research from 15 scholars who are inclined toward maps of archeological digs and trade routes but fail to mention that Quetzalcoatl was banished from his home state because of dallying with his sister during a drunken lapse of good sense and then went on a forgiveness quest that spread his name around about the same time B.C. was turning A.D.
Curator Victoria Lyall from LACMA mentions this, but you won't find it on the walls or in the catalog. DMA curator Roslyn A. Walker points out a statue of warrior god Xipe Totec and comments that his knee-length garment is not made from a puckered fabric but of human skin, flayed from a warrior who had the misfortune to lose. Bits of information such as this make the exhibition much more interesting.
The Dallas Museum of Art has had several shows -- "Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection" in 2011 and "Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship" in 2006 -- that engendered the same response as this one: They all need more text. More story. It doesn't have to be on the wall, but when it's not even in the catalog, the experience becomes one of frustration that no 500-year-old effigy vessel can dispel.
The pots, censers, sculptures, codex and jewelry are capable of eliciting immediate pleasure until the viewer wants context.
The Codex Nuttall, one of the few extant manuscripts that depicts all manner of rituals and ceremonies, for example, is abetted with some curatorial dissertation; otherwise it is a very charming picture. The colorful characters in the cartoons are so delightful, and their hand gestures so animated, they could pass for Pixar creations.
This remarkable book is open to a page that shows the marriage ceremony of Lady Three Flint, known only because Lyall's highlighting finger points out the ritual shower and consummation under a striped beach blanket.
The codex is on view in the United States for the first time and is on loan from the British Museum. It was one of the treasures that was sent to Europe from the arriviste Europeans.
From small gold jewelry to the huge feet of a giant, there is a great variety of scale at the DMA; now, if there were only a great amount of explanation to go with it.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113