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A celebration of Mexican art

Art institutes around Los Angeles pull out all the stops in honor of Mexico's bicentennial with a rich display from its 3,000 years of history.

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While the LACMA show doesn't open until Sept. 26, the Getty Villa team, up the winding Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, is in the final preparation for the March 25 opening of "The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire." Since this period is more familiar to museumgoers, says Claire Lyons, curator of antiquities, the show focuses less on the sheer splendor of the objects and more on the sociopolitical resonance that occurred when Spanish culture mixed with the indigenous traditions of the New World. One of the prizes on display: the Florentine Codex, a detailed journal recording the various cultural traditions the Spaniards encountered and attempting to contextualize and explain them to European audiences.

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"It's a fascinating document," says Ms. Lyons, who points out that this is the first time in 400 years that it has returned to this continent. "It helps enormously to understand that this took place during the High Renaissance in Europe," at the same time that Europe itself was deeply involved in a backward look at its own Roman and Greek cultural traditions.

For instance, she points out, the codex attempts to correlate the various indigenous gods and rituals with their Roman and Greek counterparts, "which was not really possible, but the attempt leads to a comprehensive and exhaustive documenting of the world the conquistadors encountered."

Back in the heart of Westwood, on the UCLA campus, the Fowler Museum is hosting "Fowler in Focus: X-Voto – The Retablo-Inspired Art of David Mecalco" through May 16. Based on traditional devotional art, these works reimagine the conventional imagery of saints and religious icons from official church histories as figures from what the artist calls la vida mas baja, or the lower strata of society. Prostitutes, drug dealers, and transvestites are just a few of the outcasts that the creator wishes to suggest also need the ability to summon divine help via these shrines, says Patrick Polk, curator of Caribbean and Latin American Popular Arts.

"He tries to capture what spirituality does and can mean, or spiritual protection can mean, in saloons on street corners and parts of urban places like Mexico and that's an updating some might not want to see," he says, explaining that the artist takes the traditional folk art and updates what that form of spirituality might mean in the modern world. "It brings it up to the moment," he says, adding that in terms of having an eye for "the underrepresented or marginalized, he depicts alternate lifestyles that tend to fall outside of the traditional purview of the church." People from all walks of life pray, so he tries to represent that, Mr. Polk adds.

Other major installations include: "Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied" (September 2010-January 2011) at the Autry National Center of the American West and "Manchuria: Peripheral Vision – A Felipe Ehrenberg Retrospective" at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif., (May 22-Aug. 15).

While contemporary Mexico may be facing many serious economic and social problems – issues tackled by the various modern artists such as Artemio and Ehrenberg – nonetheless, an artistic celebration such as this yearlong initiative can make an important contribution. "Culture plays an important role in helping to make meaning," says Ms. Holo, and particularly in troubled times, the power to create a sense of meaning is more important than ever.


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