As far as permanent collections go, the Norton Museum of Art has some impressive acquisitions. Most are paintings: American and European masterpieces from the 19th and 20th centuries. But the small collection of pre-Columbian and ancient Mexican ceramics and sculptures currently on display is just as aesthetically magnificent and historically significant, if not more. "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 to 300 BC) figures were found in eight out of every ten Maya 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. Although "Earthen Images" is tucked away in a small room, the installation provides a fulfilling experience, complete with an extremely detailed reference book that defines each culture and its traditions. (Through May 28 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Call 561-832-5196.)
Now on Display
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. Horus, according to a book written to accompany the show by Egypt's antiquities czar, Dr. Zahi Hawass, is "a sky god linked with the ascension of the king to the stars." The statuette's creator has given him a short, predatory beak, sharply focused eyes, and a remarkable spark of life. 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. There's a winged sphinx, carved on a gilded ceremonial shield, dispassionately trampling Nubian warriors underfoot, and a carved wood serpent goddess, its wings stretched protectively forward. 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)
"Earthen Images: Ceramics from Ancient America"
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. It now belongs to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and it's rarely seen in the artist's native country. 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. There's even a pale, ineffable trace of Vermeer's Street in Delft in the 1897 small oil panel The Priest's Lodging, Dieppe. But the portraits here, including a self-portrait circa 1896 and some obscure nudes, aren't of much interest. 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. There's almost no attempt at realism and instead an emphasis on mood, although the artist never gives in to abstraction completely. In A Distant Dome, which he painted during a trip to Corsica near the end of his life, he comes close to suggesting the substance of a real landscape rather than just its feel. 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. His mother, of course, would probably disagree. (Through April 2, at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Call 561-392-2500.)
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The big draw at the Boca Raton Museum of Art right now may be the Whistler show, but don't miss a smaller, less flashy exhibition tucked away on the museum's second floor in the Walter and Lucille Rubin Gallery. "Milton Avery: A Retrospective of Nudes" features not quite three dozen works, but they form a fascinating cross-section of the long, full career of this American artist. Included are oils, gouaches, and drawings in ink, charcoal, and pencil, covering 1930 to 1963, two years before he died. All come from the sizable Avery collection of the Harmon-Meek Gallery in Naples, Florida. Avery's many influences show up here, especially the cubism of Picasso and Braque. As the artist himself neatly summed up: "I try to construct a picture in which shapes, spaces, colors form a set of unique relationships, independent of any subject matter." Indeed, the fact that the works included here all portray nudes is almost incidental the pull of abstraction is present in most of the pieces, regardless of the artist's style of the moment. As one text panel emphasizes, Avery was something of a workhorse whose motto was "Keep painting day in, day out. Be absorbed by it." Critic Barbara Haskell writes that Avery "viewed painting as a duty" and "likened himself to a shoemaker working every day, regardless of mood or inspiration." Such dedication to the work is admirable, even if it also guarantees that Avery's output is uneven. Still, this slight show is, in its own way, more satisfying than the Whistler exhibition downstairs. (Through April 2 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Call 561-392-2500.)