Sculptures in Stone are For the Eternity

Howard Nowes - 05/11/2015

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The Pre-Columbian and Ancient Stone Sculpture Collection
Of The Late Art Historian Peter Arnovick, Ph.D.


Curated and Offered by Dave DeRoche & Howard Nowes
 Art For Eternity Gallery During NYC’s Tribal Arts Week 2015



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Olmec Transformation

 

 

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Mezcala stone idol

 

 

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The collection now on view at Art For Eternity,  Howard Nowes Ancient Art,  on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is a survey of Pre-Columbian stone sculpture ranging in time from the Olmec period through the Aztec amased by an astute and trained eye of the late professor Peter Arnovick, Ph.D.
 
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Constructed from a wealth of natural stones with a dynamic range of textures and color palettes, including diorite, serpentine, basalt, granite, and jade, the collection includes mainly figurative human forms - and a few rare surreal skeletons and mythical creatures.   The pieces are riveting for their paradoxical quality - at once instinctively relatable as human forms yet simultaneously utterly alien, their canonized features wildly different from contemporary depictions of the human figure.
 
Written records from Pre-Columbian civilization tell us that art objects that reflected heroism, bravery, and military conquest were highly valued, which may explain why many of the figures seem to have ferocious, wild facial expressions.  Our immediate reaction towards the strangeness and fierceness of the figures may be to feel that they must be remnants of a brutal, barbaric, and unknowable civilization.  Yet how many of us are at home on Friday night, watching shows like Sons of Anarchy, an art form that glorifies and revels in fierceness, violence, and conquest?

A modern impulse to interpret these figures as primitive or crude, because of their fierce expressions, or their minimalist, geometric style, might be severely mistaken.

Archeological records prove that the figurative sculptures from the Olmec period (the earliest Pre-Columbian civilization) were highly sophisticated as physically accurate representations of the human body, exquisite in their craftsmanship and understanding of anatomy, similar to ancient Greek statues, only much smaller in scale. 

As Pre-Columbian civilization advanced over the years in its’ capacity for science and mathematics, political development, and military conquest, there was a direct correlation in the progression of art, which would diverge from realism and become increasingly abstract and stylized, directly alongside the progress of civilization.
The pieces which are most abstract and might appear most rough or crude to an untrained eye, are also relics of the most advanced pinnacle of Pre-Columbian civilization, the Mayan civilization.
The abstraction of the forms would have been a deliberate and conscious aesthetic choice on the part of the artists, rather than a necessity brought about by lack of technical skill.
In fact, a high degree of technical skill and aesthetic contemplation would have gone into the creation of these pieces.

Pre-Columbian civilizations did not have metal technology or vehicles of any sort, so the stone was mined from the Earth using ingenuity, and the pieces were crafted completely by hand.   Stones too large to carry were floated away from quarries through a complex system of canals.   Large, cylindrical rods made of volcanic scoria (an extremely sharp, dense form of rock infused with glass particles), were used to break apart larger stones into workable pieces.  The sculptures were then painstakingly carved by hand, using stone-on-stone carving techniques, with the carving tools made of sharper stone such as obsidian.

Mayan written records are interlaced with a masochistic streak, praising character traits like grit, tenacity, devotion, and also praising the painstaking manual labor that went into creating these pieces, which was highly valued.  The progression over time of art of becoming more abstract as Pre-Columbian civilization advanced, hints at the fact that artistic abstraction was a refined, considered choice - an attempt to capture certain qualities of the human psyche, such as fierceness, or heroism, into a pure, distilled form.

In deeply contemplating the purpose of art, the Mayans may have come to the conclusion that rote replication of nature is nowhere near as sophisticated as creative invention that harnesses some elements of nature, yet is also conceives newly constructed original forms.
 
References
Outwater, J. Ogden Jr.  The Pre-Columbian Stonecutting Techniques of the Mexican Plateau. American Antiquity, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Jan, 1957), p.258-264.
Pasztory, Esther.  Aesthetics and Pre-Columbian Art.  Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 29/30, Spring-Autumn 1996, p.318-325.

 

Howard Nowes Ancient Art
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