"City and Cosmos" at LACMA

We're four years short of the centennial of Howard Carter's 1922 discovery of King Tut's tomb. The California Science Center is celebrating early with yet another Tut exhibition. But LACMA, which did Tut shows in 1962, 1978, and 2005, is giving the golden boy-king a rest. It's got a fresher, more thoughtful show of archaeological splendor. "City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan" is over 200 objects from the ancient Valley of Mexico, most excavated in recent decades and on view in the U.S. for the first time. We may think we know ancient Egypt. Teotihuacan remains an engima.

Teotihuacan, not Tenochtitlan. Just so we're on the same page, the LACMA show isn't about Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital where Montezuma lived. It's about Teotihuacan. The two cities aren't far apart in space, but very far apart in time and culture. Teotihuacan flourished in the first centuries AD. It was in ruins when the Aztecs swooped in from Aztl├ín, wherever that is, to build Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs revered Teotihuacan's ruins but may not have understood its culture much better than we do now. Both Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan are now submerged within the sprawling Mexico City of the 21st century.

Egypt, and most of the ancient cultures with great artistic traditions, were oligarchies. Their art often celebrated the powerful, as in portraits of pharoahs and caesars. Here Teotihuacan seems an outlier. We don't really know what kind of government it had. There isn't a cult of personality expressed in multiple portraits. Nor was Teotihuacan a city of palaces. Most of the city's inhabitants lived in single-story apartments. There were affluent areas and working-class ones, and enclaves on the outskirts for immigrants from other Mesoamerican cultures. But even the low-rent districts had precious objects like the jade masks.
Pyramids? Yes (not here). Teotihuacan has three famous pyramids dedicated to the sun, moon, and Feathered Serpent. A drone's eye video orients LACMA visitors. Sections of the exhibition show offerings associated with each pyramid. (Above are ceramic reliefs from the Moon Pyramid, 200-600 AD.)

A tunnel under the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, discovered in 2003, would have been partially filled with water, evoking the watery underworld. The tunnel has ceilings of reflective magnetite, and one room has spheres of glittery pyrite. The play of light must have been Teotihuacan's closest approach to an infinity mirror room.

Gold? No. As the Getty's recent "Golden Kingdoms" demonstrated, certain stones, seashells, feathers, and textiles were valued more than gold in much of Mesoamerica. The tomb offerings and luxury goods of Teotihuacan tend to be of jade, serpentine, obsidian, pyrite, and thorny oysters. California prospectors dismissed pyrite as "fool's gold"; the show has a necklace made of it.
The Crazy Duck. In 1966 archeologists discovered "the crazy duck" (el pato loco) in a tomb. It's a  ceramic vessel of a dodo-ish bird, ornamented with seashells and stone. Simon Rodia would have loved it. Antiquity doesn't get much more anti-classical than this.
Frontality. In general the sculpture is rigidly frontal. Witness a mosaic Jaguar, about 400 AD., from the Xalla residential compound.

Beauty of the Fragment. An elegantly broken greenstone Standing Figure, found in the House of the Priests near the Sun Pyramid, has become one of the best-known works of its time, c. 150-250 AD. Its sensuous equation of polished stone to skin rivals anything in the Egyptian canon.
Skulls. Calaveras are an enduring motif of Mesoamerican art, translated via Posada to the present day. Here again Teotihuacan is an outlier. Skulls are not a common motif. A stone relief of a skull found in the Sun Pyramid (300-450 AD) probably represents the death god Mictlantecuhtli. If so, he would have originally had an obsidian blade for a nose.

Obsidian. Obsidian was the original black mirror, and also a medium for sculpture. There are obsidian blades for blood-letting; hauntingly reductive human figures; Feathered Serpents, lightning bolts, and abstractions ("eccentrics").