Savage Beauty

The DAM's Tiwanaku is an impressive, groundbreaking exhibit.

The Tiwanaku had direct ancestors among earlier people in the area. Given that this show is a primer on the Tiwanaku, a gallery devoted to artifacts lays out the story of those who came before them, notably the slightly earlier Pucara, in nearby Peru. You can't appreciate how thoughtful Young-S´nchez was with these inclusions until you see the rest of the show, so I suggest making a couple of laps through the galleries. I felt I had a better grasp on who and what the Tiwanaku were after seeing the informative show twice.

These pre-Tiwanaku pieces are a setup for the subsequent displays. For example, the "Llama Head Sculpture," done in the Titicaca basin sometime between 1000 and 200 B.C., anticipates the conventionalized features in Tiwanaku sculpture. The religion of which human butchering was a part is exemplified in "Relief Carved Panel with Victim," a Pucara-style stone sculpture depicting a dismembered man in simple, hard-edged forms. Both of these pieces, like the later architecture of Tiwanaku, have a decidedly modernist look to them, with lots of straight lines and flat planes used to create visual interest.

Also in this section are the first of many textiles. For insiders of Pre-Columbian art, the textiles, which are in remarkable condition considering their great age, are thought to be the most significant objects in the exhibition. I'm no expert on the topic, but it's easy to see why scholars feel that way -- namely, the great beauty of the intricate patterns and vibrant colors. Do not miss "Animal-shaped Tapestry Sash," a Pucara-style piece from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D.

"Miniature Ancestor Figure," carved stone in the 
Tiwanaku style.
"Miniature Ancestor Figure," carved stone in the Tiwanaku style.
"Masked Dignitary in a Litter," Wari-style ceramic.
"Masked Dignitary in a Litter," Wari-style ceramic.


Through January 23, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865- 5000

The next gallery is concerned with the spiritual cosmos of Tiwanaku, which comes out of the Yaya-Mama group of religions dating back to the third century B.C. Here the show introduces some of that hard-core stuff, like the gorgeous little "Decapitator Amulet," from 400 to 1000 A.D. The bone carving depicts a supernatural being holding a severed head in one hand and an ax in the other. The style is remarkable, utilizing stacked geometric forms to convey the lethal figure. Also related to the Tiwanaku's decapitation mania is the exquisitely done "Snuff Tray with Fox Man," from 400 to 1000 A.D., in wood and turquoise. The Tiwanaku used the tray, along with a tube, to snort hallucinogenic seeds, surely a necessary preparation for cutting people's head's off for fun and worship.

The portion on religion is followed by one on the life of the Tiwanaku elite class, for whom luxury goods were produced. In this section is one of the most incredible textiles imaginable: "Tunic with Shoulder Pads," from 200 to 400 A.D. Principally made up of a red field, the shoulders are adorned with rectilinear and hieratically composed decorative panels with a matching border. It's breathtaking. Also in the clothing line are three four-cornered hats -- pillbox affairs -- any one of which would have looked great with that tunic.

The Tiwanaku's wealthy didn't just decorate themselves; they also decorated their homes with sculpture, including the three figures carved in stone that are on display in a showcase -- most notably, the small but monumental "Miniature Ancestor Figure," from 400 to 1000 A.D., which relates well to the later cultures in the region.

It's back to religion in the next part of the exhibit, where there are many snuff trays and snuff tubes. The most eye-catching is "Snuff Tray with Sacrificer," wherein our old friend the decapitator is depicted in carved wood with Orphan Annie-type blank eyes in turquoise.

The final section, which is quite large, deals with the styles of the late Tiwanaku and the Wari. Wari was a contemporaneous civilization to Tiwanaku, existing from 500 to 1000 A.D. in Peru. It is a matter of argument among scholars as to whether Wari and Tiwanaku were affiliated, but to an untrained eye like mine, they sure look like two variations on the same theme. Ceramic pieces, many of them of the highest caliber, are found throughout the exhibit, but the Wari ceramics steal the show. "Masked Dignitary in a Litter," from 500 to 900 A.D., which depicts a squat little man in a helmet and polka-dot tunic standing in a tray surrounded by images of animal deities, is tremendous. Even more stunning is "Effigy Vessel," from 500 to 800 A.D., a large jug with a face on the neck. The simple overall form and geometric decorations are absolutely wonderful.

Tiwanaku strikes me as the perfect diversion this Thanksgiving weekend. It may be more crowded than when I saw it, but it's definitely not going to be as jam-packed as the malls. And that will allow you to really get a good look at all the beautiful things those disturbing Tiwanaku made and used during their millennium-long run.

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