Artbeat

Capsule reviews of current area art exhibitions.

The small collection of pre-Columbian and ancient Mexican ceramics and sculptures currently on display at the Norton Museum of Art is aesthetically magnificent and historically significant. "Earthen Images: Ceramics from Ancient America" features 17 objects from six South American civilizations that flourished thousands of years before the discovery of the Americas. Three highly ornamentalized cylindrical vases sit together in a glass case, reflecting skeletal figures and organic designs in natural, subtle hues of orange, red, and cream. A sleek "Coprador" style Maya funerary sculpture of a dog holding an ear of corn in its mouth casts an unsettling gaze at its audience. Even more disturbing is the fact that these iconographic dogs from Colima were actual hairless creatures bred as ceremonial food and companions for the afterlife. The late pre-Classic (100 BC-300 BC) figures were found in eight of every ten Mayan tombs. Another creepy but fascinating object is a ladle, used during the ritual of human sacrifice. It depicts the sacred ulluchu fruit, which was believed to have anticoagulant properties, shaped into a ladle to hold the blood of sacrificial victims. (Through May 28 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Call 561-832-5196.)

The mummy of Tutankhamun, discovered in 1922 in a burial chamber near Luxor, Egypt, remains in its home country, as does Tut's elaborate gold-plated sarcophagus. But 50 burial objects are now on display at the Museum of Art in "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," as well as 70 objects from other tombs and a nifty video reproduction of the grimacing mummy, revealing itself on a flat, bed-like screen with an accompaniment of spine-tingling movie music. The exhibition is shamelessly overpriced (top tickets are $30) and, let's face it, a little on the skimpy side (there are more than 5,000 artifacts from Tut's tomb, meaning we get a measly 1 percent for our money). But you can't argue with the show's artistic merit. The anonymous Egyptian sculptors and goldsmiths who created the objects to facilitate the young pharaoh's passage to the other side were great artists. Here, for example, is a striking, 18-inch, gilded wood statuette of Horus the Elder, with a long, tight-fitting tunic, folded arms, straight Cleopatra tresses, and the face of a falcon. There are the carved heads of cow goddesses, one of them leaving the graceful wood grain exposed, like fur markings. Lanky panthers are caught midstride. And there are dozens of images of Tut himself in various incarnations, doe-eyed, visionary, emanating a vast calm. You begin to understand the excitement of the archaeologists who broke into Tut's tomb 83 years ago. (Through April 23 at the Museum of Art, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-525-5500.)

The notorious Whistler's Mother is not among the dozen oil paintings included in "James McNeill Whistler: Selected Works from the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland" at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. And maybe that's a good thing, because without the glaring spotlight of its fame to distract us, we're left to look at Whistler's work in an altogether different light. This exhibition draws on one of the world's most extensive Whistler collections and features items culled from a 40-year period. Along with those 12 oils are dozens of drawings, etchings, and lithographs, a few watercolors, and a smattering of such personal memorabilia as letters, manuscripts, and books. Aside from a couple of the oils, however, we don't get much sense of Whistler's achievement as a painter. That's a shame, because since his death in 1903, he has largely fallen out of favor, overshadowed by, for instance, impressionism, which he arguably anticipated. The show does include one of the series of Nocturnes painted in the mid-1870s, inspired by a favorite subject: London's Thames River at nightfall or in the evening. Despite Whistler's undeniable technical mastery, his overall cultural contribution seems to have been eclipsed, ultimately, by his flamboyant life and personality. This uneven exhibition from the Hunterian Gallery seeks to reclaim the artist's rightful position in art history and to restore some perspective to his reputation. It's a valiant effort, even if it's only partially successful. (Through April 2 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Call 561-392-2500.

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