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Exhibit reflects on how the Latin West was won

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LOS ANGELES - Awe is what the Spanish clergy and conquerors wished to inspire in the cultures that already populated Latin America. The colonizers couldn't make that motive any clearer than with the sort of larger-than-life Jesus on the cross, commissioned in 1792 for a Brazilian church that was (and still is) its home.

This is a big-budget scriptural theater. The Christ figure, done with great attention to detail in the favored medium of painted wood, is a dazzling exercise in ornate scrolls and intricate detail. Whether you believe in the symbolism of this work or not, you are likely to be seduced by its visual power.

This sculpture rises at the entrance to the galleries of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that house the epic-size exhibition "The Arts in Latin America: 1492-1820." The show, featuring 200 plus objects, was even larger last fall at its first venue, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by nearly 100 works. The two venues co-organized it, along with Mexico City's Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso.

But you won't feel cheated. It still looks like a panoramic portrait of an era in which brutality, radical change and cultural fusion all defined life in a region reaching from present day Mexico through Peru to Argentina and stretching across what is now Brazil.

Americans are familiar with brutality, radical change, and cultural fusion from their own colonial history of relations between settlers and Indians. But Latin America was different. It was colonized by Roman Catholics who served a church that reveled in lavish and visual representations of figures from scripture.

Cortes and fellow conquistadors encountered civilizations like that of the Aztecs, which had grand architecture and well-established traditions of imagery and mythology. They clearly wanted to replace the existing civilization with something equally grand.

Art needed to be dramatic. Sculptural versions of a suffering savior were common in Europe, but they acquired new relevance in the New World. As historians writing for the mammoth exhibition catalog suggest, a suffering, wounded version of Christ was also consistent with traditions of blood sacrifice that the Spanish encountered among the indigenous cultures in the New World. So this became a repeated - and persuasive - subject.

A group of sculptors from Seville, Spain, set up a flourishing workshop in the Bolivian town of Potosi, and one of their virtuosic proteges was Diego Quispe Curo. He was Creole, meaning a person born in the colonies. And among the stellar works on view is his version of "Christ at the Column" from 1667, carved in cedar and painted (polychromed), in which Curo revels in signs of his suffering. Jesus' back is bloodied, and his limbs and torso display significant gashes and cuts.

Even if the subject doesn't interest you, the power of Curo's sculpture is likely to stay with you. So will other sculptures in this medium. In an early 17th-century sculpture, the Christ child appears in an indigenous tunic and has a hairstyle to match. This sort of fusion, in which Christian symbols gain a new dimension acknowledging the realities of a new continent, is one intriguing element of this period and this exhibition.

This fusion takes on different guises, as with new identities for the Christ child. Another is the shifting identity of the Virgin Mary, most famously embodied by Our Lady of Guadalupe, who makes her way into paintings here. But there are visually more extravagant takes, like "The Virgin Mary and the Rich Mountain of Potosi" (circa 1740), which was anonymously rendered. It's site specific to the Bolivian town, with Mary merging with a mountain that yielded tons of silver. She hovers above the pope and other religious figures. Some commentators think she is also doing double duty as Pachamama, an Inca goddess.

In fact, Potosi was a center for indigenous painters who favored ornate versions of the Virgin, like Luis Nino with his "The Virgin of the Rosary With Saint Dominic and Saint Francis of Assisi." Her intricately designed gown might as well be another mountain, given its scale and shape. The saints as well as her symbols, the sun and the moon, are dwarfed by the costume.

The timeline of the exhibition begins with the arrival of Columbus and ends with the stirrings of independence in the colonies, known as viceroyalties. This is where the term viceregal art originates.

For much of the 20th century, art historians had dismissed the art from this epoch. But it's become clear that this period hadn't been looked at very closely. "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries," which came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1991, began to change the critical fortunes of viceregal painters and sculptors, along with new scholarship. An exhibition that came to the San Diego Museum of Art in 2003, "The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico: Treasures From the Museo Franz Mayer," was another indication of changing opinion about colonial culture.

Among the artists of New Spain, you won't find any equals to Spanish masters like Zurbaran or Velazquez, not by a long shot. Few artists can match their gifts, in any era or place. But New Spain produced some genuine originals.

One was the late 17th-century painter Cristobal de Villalpando, who created oil-on-copper pictures characterized with an eye for luminous detail. His version of "Adam and Eve in Paradise" melds multiple scenes that narrate their time in paradise and their expulsion from Eden, while "The Flood" pictures an ornate ark and a suffering multitude of humanity engulfed by water. His beautifully produced scenes remind us that Flemish as well as Spanish Mannerist and Baroque sources played a role in colonial art.

In sculpture, there was the 18th-century Brazilian O Aleijadinho (Antonio Francisco Lisboa), whose adapted name means "Little Cripple." His hands became useless, but using tools strapped to his forearms, he made works in wood rife with remarkable detail and attention to facial expression like the small-scale sculpture of a bishop on view.

The writing in the catalog and on the museum walls is a little too eager to overlook the cruelty of these centuries. Cultures were decimated in the drive to convert indigenous people to Catholicism and to plunder the land for silver and gold. Perhaps the meeting of European and Indian artists did produce "a mutually enriching dynamic," as one preface to the catalog says. But the Indian was never an equal in this relationship. He was forced to adapt.

The exhibition contains a monumental reminder of this subjugation, which, like the large-scale version of the crucifixion, is at the entrance to the galleries. It's a fragment of a 16th-century stone column, used in the construction of a new Mexico City. On one side is a relief carving of the Mexican monster-god Tlaltecuhtli, considered to be Lord of the Earth. The conqueror took the existing monument and turned it into a column for a new structure.

This piece of a column becomes metaphor for the creation of a colonial culture built on the rubble of an existing one. The exhibition chronicles the art history of these new colonies as never before.

Robert L. Pincus: 619-293-1831;
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