SKEPTICS have wondered if the exhibit "Mexico - Splendors of Thirty Centuries" was merely political glad-handing in the guise of a cultural exchange. That's because of the unusual fanfare accompanying this show: visiting international dignitaries, endorsement from multinational corporations, high-brow functions with, of all things, female parking valets made up and dressed like Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.Fanfare and motives aside, when we peel back the wrapping, the exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an impressive one, consisting of nearly 400 works spanning 3,000 years of art. "Splendors" traces the seismic historical, social, and artistic ruptures that make up Mexican culture. This look south is welcome and overdue. In the United States since the 1970s, barriers that separate cultures into "us" and "them" have been challenged; more recently, walls dividing world cultures have fallen, forcing people to acknowledge that the more we are different the more we are the same. Nowhere is this ethnic confluence more apparent than in Mexico. Mexico bridges our young Yankee culture to advanced Indian civilizations that dominated this hemisphere long before the sight of a colonist. As our nearest neighbor with strong ties to Spain, Mexico also connects the US to the long European heritage with which it identifies most strongly. And perhaps more to the point, the populations of many US urban centers are now 40 percent Mexican or Latin American. The Mexico which "Splendors" opens up for Americans includes four chronological periods: the pre-Columbian dating from about 1000 BC to 1520 AD; the time of Spanish rule from about 1520 to 1821; the 19th century and the 20th century. What this survey lacks in depth (there are too few works per era), it makes up for in a sweeping lateral breadth which covers this rapidly changing, polyglot society - first, Indian then Spanish, polytheistic then Christian, indigenous then foreign, hierarchical then fiercely egalitarian. And for all this exotic interbreeding, "Splendors" leaves us with a feel for an ineffable Mexican sensibility, both potent and notably consistent. The stunning pre-Columbian works on view are a high point, perhaps because they exude what Mexican poet Octavio Paz calls a "radical otherness," something so unfamiliar to us that it is almost incomprehensible. Classical pre-Columbian culture is sampled through art objects and architectural remains excavated from progressively advanced cities dating from as early as 1000 BC to 1521 when the Spaniards arrived. At sites such as Teotihuacan, Tajin, the Mayan city Palenque, and the Aztec city Tenochtitlan there appears complex, highly ordered temple architecture as well as small-scale art objects notable for their formal and conceptual complexity. The pre-Columbian art on view depicts a dizzying array of gods, kings, man-animal hybrids, and incarnate natural forces. The religious, decorative, and utilitarian objects freely merge figures, symbols, designs, and functional elements. Human figures are typically woven into architecture or coiled with foliage or animal forms, expressing the strong native belief in a tightly interrelated universe, of which man is not the center but one part of a huge circle. The art of the Spanish conquest and the 17th century is predictably non-Indian. Spanish missionaries hoped to bring Christ to the Indians, and secular Spanish adventurers schemed for power and riches. Both agendas had one converging goal: the elimination of all indigenous art and culture. Temple sites were replaced by missions, and native artisans - once converted to Christianity - were set to work embroidering bishops' miters, carving altar fonts, and piecing together pulpits from gorgeous woods. (Beaut iful examples of these abound.) Instead of discarding their culture, these native artists struck a comfortable synthesis between old and new. Who best to adorn the undersides of columns in the churches of Christ than Tlatlecuhtli, the god of the underworld? In a beautiful sculpture of St. Christopher, painted in jarring colors undoubtedly by a native artisan, Christopher, whose job it was to carry Christ and the sins of the world on his back, is given the ponderous weighted body and outsized limbs of a Mayan warrior. The bizarre rituals that historians tell us accompanied ancient religious rites must have fit right in with the exaggerated emotion of Baroque art, which was brought to the New World from Spain. That merger produced macabre altar statuary in which a suffering Christ is given real hair and bound in real thorns and rope. MEXICO began to find a national voice around 1650 when the descendants of the Spanish conquerors began to develop pride in their homeland and a growing distaste for Spanish rule. Called Creoles, these Mexican-born Spaniards became the intellectuals, merchants, and church patrons who would spearhead the move toward independence from Spain. These "new rich" paid for and commissioned Renaissance-based painting, sumptuous church and personal art made after French and Italian models (works of silver and wood crafts in "Splendors" are remarkable). As Mexican nationalism grew, literature and the arts slowly embraced themes of Mexico's native past and daily life - portraits of the middle class, humble Indian families, and still lifes were painted. Created in the late 1800s after independence from Spain, the portraits of the naive artists Jose Maria Estrada and Hermenegildo Bustos are exceptional in their expressive depth. Through the 1800s, the Academy of San Carlos pushed for classical European training for Mexican artists and taught watered-down versions of European styles. To the school's credit, it also produced Jose Maria Velasco, a visionary artist whose exquisite, mystical landscapes are uniquely Mexican. The wave of liberal politics that began with the Creoles led in 1910 to the Mexican Revolution. Mexico was rocked with a collective, violent cry for equal civil rights and in this atmosphere the famous muralists produced the art for which Mexico is best known. "Splendors of Mexico" offers the rare treat of seeing small powerful canvases executed in a variety of styles by artists known mostly for their public mural art. David Siqueiros's "The Devil in the Church" and "The Echo of a Scream" or Diego Rivera's "Lupe Marin," "The Agrarian Leader Zapata," and "The Tortilla Maker," like all good "ethnic" art, seem at first to be intensely personal but then transcend ethnicity to speak about mystery, passion, spiritual search, joy and pain, with timeless voices.
'Mexico - Splendors of Thirty Centuries,' closes its national tour at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Dec. 29.