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Casas Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest

April 22 - August 13, 2006



(above: Bell-shaped shoulder olla with diagonal, geometric bands and scroll appendages, A.D. 950-1150. Southern Arizona, Hohokam; Sacaton Red-on-buff. 37.5 x 49.5 cm (14 3/4 x 19 1/2 inches). Private collection.  G22281.)


For more than a century, archaeologists have been excavating ancient Pueblo towns in the American Southwest and nearby Mexico, connecting their remarkable discoveries to historical records and tribal sources in order to uncover the 2000-year history of early civilization in the region. The exploration of one cultural area -- Casas Grandes -- is the most recent to take shape in this vast and ongoing archaeological project. Despite nearly five decades of work on Casas Grandes sites, there has been no major exhibition of the astonishing art produced by this ancient culture. With Casas Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest, the Art Institute of Chicago mounts just such an exhibition, which will be on view from April 22, 2006 to August 13, 2006, and can be seen only at the Art Institute.

Too far north to be part of ancient Mesoamerican empires, the ancient Casas Grandes area is in the northwestern desert of Chihuahua, Mexico, reaching into what is now New Mexico, Arizona, and extreme southwestern Texas. Excavations reveal that Casas Grandes was a major cultural extension of the archaeologically more well-known American southwest. Its heart was Paquimé, an intricate adobe town similar to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico today. Covering more than 100 acres, Paquimé flourished between A.D. 1250 and 1475 A.D., and archaeologists have discovered in its ruins a bold, complex, and astonishingly inventive ancient ceramic art.


(above: Olla with linked serrated scrolls on a field of fine-line hatching, A.D. 1100-1250. West-central New Mexico, Anasazi; Tularosa Black-on-white. 38.1 x 39.4 cm (15 x 15 1/2 inches). Private Collection.  G22258.)


The exhibition Casas Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest presents 60 never before exhibited Casas Grandes-style vessels -- rich with color and dazzling in their complex representations of geometric patterns and human, animal, and composite forms -- together with 60 masterpieces from other early southwestern ceramic styles. This comparative approach introduces visitors to a design tradition as rich as that found anywhere else in the world and illuminates a broad swath of the cultural history and art of northern Mexico and the American southwest.

The idea of making pottery moved along the Pacific coast of Mexico to arrive in southern Arizona in the Hohokam area (near where Tucson and Phoenix are now) between A.D. 200 and 300. There, artists began developing a mode of graphic design rooted in patterns of earlier textiles and basketry. Made in agricultural village workshops, Hohokam ceramics are characterized by red and buff coloring, geometric motifs, and abstract serpents, fish, and dancing ritual figures.

Meanwhile, on the northern plateau of Arizona and New Mexico, diverse Anasazi communities were also starting to develop a pottery tradition that continued for 1000 years, between A.D. 400 and the 1500s. These ceramics feature black-and-white designs based on a limited number of abstract motifs, many also stemming from earlier basket-making art. Anasazi styles are recognized by their tight symmetrical compositions, a distinctive "alphabet" of design elements, and arithmetically logical rhythms.


(above: Jar with two horned-and-plumed serpents, macaw-head motifs, and birds, A.D. 1280-1450. Casas Grandes; Ramos Polychrome. 22.2 x 22.9 cm (8 3/4 x 9 inches). Private Collection.  G22233.)


As Anasazi ceramics evolved, another remarkable style was appearing in the mountain valleys of southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. The Mimbres style of A.D. 950-1150 inaugurated new forms of graphic imagery, where the strict logic of Anasazi design gives way to human, animal, and composite creatures -- figures at once recognizable yet narrating myths, legends, and stories we are only beginning to decipher. The stripped-down, elegant, and humorous scenes painted on Mimbres bowls mark a significant shift in the Southwestern artistic repertoire.

By A.D. 1150, prolonged drought had contributed strongly to the collapse and abandonment of the great Anasazi towns as well as the Mimbres area. Migrations and resettlements followed as people sought more stable environments and, critically, sources of water. A century later, the town of Paquimé, a new religious, economic, and political center on the Casas Grandes river, was arising from the dust of the drought. Archaeological evidence suggests that Paquimé was built in less than a generation -- an astounding feat given its complexity -- and the ceramic art of the region was a bold assertion of a new cultural and political entity. Brightly colored, these works synthesized design motifs selected from the intricate geometry of earlier Anasazi styles, as well as forms from Mimbres imagery. A new visual language was taking shape. Fanciful yet highly conventionalized, Casas Grandes designs featured plumed serpents and scarlet macaws, among other motifs, that point to long-standing cosmological religious themes. The Art Institute of Chicago is the only venue in which these remarkable works can be seen.


(above: Bowl depicting a legendary hero-hunter wearing a heron headdress and a quiver, with an attendant rabbit hunter, A.D. 950-1150. New Mexico, Mogollon; Classic Mimbres Black-on-white. 13.3 x 26.4 cm (5 1/4 x 10 3/8 inches). Private Collection. G22274.)


The imagery of ceramic production and archaeological remains are now allowing scholars from various disciplines, including the all-important tribal cultural preservationists, to reconstruct Casas Grandes as a pivotal episode of cultural renovation in the history of the southwestern Pueblo Indian peoples. The exhibition, Casas Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest, offers a tour of ancient, innovative graphic expressiveness as well as the literal excavation of history in the making. These rare works of art, exhibited here for the first time, were produced by artisans within a culture that had no tradition of paper. They can be appreciated in their own right, as beautiful and complex drawings striking in their modernity, and as clues to the history of an ancient civilization that is only now being unearthed. "The inventive ceramic art from the Southwest testifies to the remarkable aesthetic and historical achievement of the Native American peoples," says curator Richard F. Townsend. "The astonishing geometries and expressive figures also deeply affect our collective imagination and sensibility. In this respect this art truly forms an important part of the patrimony of all humankind."           

Casas Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest is accompanied by a splendidly illustrated 214-page catalogue with interpretive essays by art historians and a ceramic artist. More than 140 illustrations in full color will present, for the first time, a visually compelling picture of Casas Grandes vessels in relation to neighboring ceramic styles, and will include photographs and plans of important archaeological sites. The catalogue is available in the Museum Shop.

Casas Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest is organized by The Art Institute of Chicago. The curator of the exhibition is Richard F. Townsend, Curator of African and Amerindian Art at the Art Institute of Chicago.


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