"Masterworks of Spanish Colonial Art" at Phoenix Art Museum Is a Mysterious Key to Latin American Soul

St. Gregory is a bearded man with hazel eyes, and he raises a finger to his temple, as if lost in thought. He looks like a typical pope, with his gold miter and elaborate robes. The portrait is standard Vatican fare — except for the eyeball floating in the corner.

The eye is stuck in the middle of a brown triangle, which hovers above a bookcase. At first glance, it’s an eerie touch. What is it doing there? What it is looking at? The painting would be totally unmemorable, if it weren’t for that eye.

These surreal additions are a running theme in "Masterworks of Spanish Colonial Art," an exhibition that recently opened at the Phoenix Art Museum. The title is stodgy. The selection is small. The paintings are centuries old, and their style is flat and liturgical, the stuff you’d see in a dusty cathedral. But most of these portraits have a quirky aspect, and they say a lot about the people who conquered half of the Western Hemisphere.

If you visit "Masterworks," make sure to look at each painting and try to puzzle it out before you read the explanatory placard. Unless you happen to be an art historian, your guess will probably be wrong. Take La Nave de la Iglesia, a Peruvian painting that shows Jesus on the cross. But wait a minute: Why is Jesus being crucified on a ship? What is the ship doing in a stormy sea? Is that a cardinal holding onto the gunwales? That’s not the New Testament I remember.

The plaques explain these bizarre symbols: The triangle-eye represents the watchful gaze of God. The ship represents the corruption of the Reformation-era church. In the painting Santa Gertrudis el Grande, the German saint is dressed in a black habit, but her chest is torn open, revealing her heart. Inside the heart lies a naked baby, which speaks in Latin through a kind of thought-bubble. Apparently this represents a “redemptive fountain,” but you’d likely never figure that out on your own.

The museum recently acquired the collection from the Estate of Gerry S. Culpepper and the Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation. The exhibition is apropos to nothing. It doesn’t tie into an anniversary or controversy. It would be as relevant in 2021 as it is in 2015. Compared to the museum’s more contemporary offerings, "Masterworks" isn’t very impressive.

But it says a lot about the magnitude of Latin American influence in our half of the world, Arizona included. For many people in the U.S., “Latin America” usually means “Mexico,” and we often forget that Hispanic culture dominates 19 countries and nearly half a billion people. Spain once controlled one of the largest empires in human history, and these paintings symbolize classic Iberian obsessions: the Catholic Church, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the literal war between angels and demons. As a former part of Mexico, Arizona shares this heritage. The people who painted these portraits in Peru and Bolivia had a lot in common with the people who first claimed the Valley of the Sun.

The most provocative portrait shows a boyish man dressed in a foppish uniform. He wears the plumed hat and puffy shirt of a nobleman, and he carries a musket over his shoulder. It is not until you read the title, El Arcángel Salamiel con Arcabuz, that you realize this man is not a mortal soldier but an angel. Instead of a flabby cherub with wings, he is a svelte musketeer, ready for battle. It’s a startling reminder just how cavalier those early colonists were — even their angels were armed to the teeth.

The Phoenix Museum of Art is full of exciting exhibits right now, including a survey of early 20th century paintings and sculptures by Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei. "Masterworks" is not the most exciting of these, but it’s worth a visit. At first you might not see anything special, but take a second glance. Like they say, God works in mysterious ways.

"Masterworks of Spanish Colonial Art" is on view at Phoenix Art Museum through Sunday, February 28, 2016. For museum hours and admission details, see Phoenix Art Museum online.
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Robert Isenberg