Reviews Published June 23rd, 2014 ACCESS PRESS KIT & LOGOS

Behind Closed Doors: NOMA Exhibit Provides Comforts of Home for Spanish American Art

By Cheryl Castjohn | NOLA Defender

This article originally appeared here

"Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898" opened Friday at the New Orleans Museum of Art, compliments of the Brooklyn Museum. To the exhibit, NOMA adds eleven objects from its own Spanish Colonial Collection. NOMA and "Closed Doors" mesh well together, and not just because the museum has a few things to add to the conversation.

Susan M. Taylor explains, "This exhibition showcases the cultural and artistic traditions New Orleans shares with the former Spanish colonies of the Americas." Ceded to Spanish rule in 1763 and remaining under Spanish rule until 1800, New Orleans owes much of its oldest architecture to implementation of Spanish building laws. The exhibit is actually arranged like rooms of a home, with floor plans depicting the layout of the home. Far from the experiential model (think Colonial Williamsburg), "Closed Doors" seeks instead to depict the way that the models of power follow suit into the realm of the home.

The exhibit abounds with grand portraiture. Portrait painting was the foremost display of wealth and prowess specifically throughout the centuries the exhibit covers. Nowhere is this fact more prominent than in the poignant display of portraits of fourteen Inca kings, dated between 1750 and 1800. In order to "legitimize claims to noble lineage" the portraits, rather than a traditional Incan style, are Europeanized portraits. This is a startling transition from two works which occur further along the exhibit's path, one "Genealogy of Juan Tepetzin" and a Mixtec piece, both from the 16th century.

The contrast is not between a pre-colonial utopian tribe and a brutalized, colonized people. Instead, it points out the transition that Europeanization has brought about. The loss of Incan and Mixtec artistic lineage is commensurate with its necessary insistence on birth lineage. The Incans and Mixtecs adapted socially and thus artistically to the modes of the Spanish. A student of art history or a lover of art can't help but lament the loss of an Incan or a Mixtec style evolution, devoid of European influence. The exhibit points out a sad watering-down of these ancient cultures, rather than necessarily reinforcing an enrichment of the European tradition.

This opinion, however, is a matter of perspective. For the three splintered genealogical styles, there are many blessed virgins, adorned with authentic silver crowns and flowing gowns of gessoed linen. There are polychromed and gilded wooden portable altarpieces. There are shawl pins of forged silver depicting Incan scenes, a product of the combination of indigenous imagery with Spanish styles of attire.

A poetic and affecting display features two camelid fabric vestments, one a dress and one a man's tunic. Woven into one side of the traditional Peruvian tunic of the 17th century are the persistent icons of Western European royalty, male lions in battle. The two cultures have thus become symbolically intertwined within the very fabric of the clothing. Rather than necessarily enriching both, the end product is that the larger, more established sort of squashes the smaller and more distinct. This is empire-building, this is commerce and running water and eventually vaccines—albeit vaccines against European-introduced ills. But it is also a loss of what is a little purer, a little more authentic. It is the loss of another avenue of possibility allowed to play out on its own, to evolve into what it would have become and still been becoming if left to flourish on its own.

The exhibit examines the tools that power uses, has always used, to reinforce its dominion. In this exhibit, the home, beginning with the Grand Salon, is examined as a fascinating anthropological microcosm of the halls of government. It is the unspoken but tangible sentiment that 'we who aspire to the will of the king and the pope attain success.' "Behind Closed Doors" re-examines the art of conquered indigenous populations and traces the evolution of their process of getting with the program. In this case, it is the Spanish program. One needn't agree or disagree with the implications of this process to begin to understand it. Aste's collection simply points out that it does, indeed, happen from the outside-in and not the reverse.

Strangely, though, this show didn't reinforce how insidious the power of American government is. It didn't bring to mind the glowing countenances of Will and Kate. Instead, it seems to point out our unbridled obsession with things themselves; about the power of these objects to reinforce our importance and ultimately, our permanence. This show brought to mind Andy Warhol's soup cans, not Goya's "Portrait of Don Tadeo Bravo de Rivero." And the giant Goya is in the show. The many vessels for chocolate, trays for serving and shawl pins which didn't need to be made of semi-precious metal but were, all of these objects scream out about consumption and its aims. "Closed Doors" points out, so elegantly and richly, how one can tip a silver cup to one's own lips while achieving the magical feat of pouring it down the throat of another.

Behind Closed Doors is on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art through September 21.

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