Yucatán Road Trip: Balamkú

Traversing the distance between the city of Campeche and the hotels surrounding Calakmul takes about four hours, with little in the way of either gas stations or open archaeological sites in between. Over three hours and 150 miles after leaving our hotel we reached our first stop: the partially excavated site of Balamkú. Situated about 30 miles north of Calakmul in the southernmost part of the Maya lowlands, Balamkú was (re)discovered in 1990 and excavations began in 1994. Today, only the central and southern groups have been exposed. A stroll around the grounds reveals a series of attractive but relatively simple ruins picturesquely overgrown with slim, hardy trees and neatly kept by the groundskeeper.

To find Balamkú’s most impressive feature, however, visitors must search a little deeper. We wandered cluelessly for a while before the groundskeeper came up and indicated we should follow him. He led us up a narrow metal staircase alongside one of the site’s larger buildings (Structure 1 of the Central Group), unlocked the door, and ushered us inside. We found ourselves within a long, narrow chamber lit purely by the natural light filtering through a series of small, square holes in the ceiling. To out left stood one of the longest and oldest known painted stucco friezes of the Mayan world.

Stretching 55 ft across, the frieze once included four columns topped by rulers, separated by jaguars or jaguar-like creatures. According to the signage (or at least my questionable translation of the signage), the kingly uppermost figures—of which only one and a half of the original four remain—do not possess any uniquely identifying features and thus likely represented the concept of rulership rather than specific individuals. Each emerges from the jaws of an amphibian—again, according to the INAH sign—representing the fertile aspect of the world. The king’s birth from a creature that can move between water and earth suggests his ability to likewise move between worlds. Each “amphibian” sits upon a mask of the Earth Monster similarly representing the richness of the world while also evoking the four directions.

Jaguars—symbols of sacrifice, war, and death, as well as the risen and subterranean sun—and Jaguar hybrids fill the panels between the masks and provided the inspiration for the site’s current name (balam=jaguar, kú=temple, Balamkú=Temple of the the Jaguar). Taken as a whole, the frieze celebrates and glorifies Balamkú’s rulers and their intimate connection with a healthy and bountiful world.

The INAH website offers a slightly different iconographic summary, suggesting that composition equates the dynastic cycle with the solar cycle. In this view, the image of the ruler emerging from the jaws of the Earth Monster symbolizes his ascension to the throne just as the sun comes out of the earth at dawn, and the ruler’s death is shown at sunset, when he falls back into the Earth’s mouth.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 27, 2015.

Yucatán Road Trip: Museo Arqueológico de Campeche, Fuerte de San Miguel

The Archaeological Museum of Campeche (Museo Arqueológico de Campeche) is located in Fuerte de San Miguel, a short drive south of the city center. Begun in 1771, the colonial, sea-facing fortress is a major landmark in its own right, included in UNESCO’s designated World Heritage Site of the Historic Fortified Town of Campeche. Its barrel-shaped chambers and brightly painted courtyard create a dramatic frame for the museum’s excellent collection of Maya artifacts, including Jaina figurines, stelae and jade from Calakmul, as well as skulls exhibiting artificial cranial deformation. The presence of a friendly cat wandering the grounds also didn’t hurt our impression of the site.

Taken as a whole, the Museo Arqueológico was not only the largest museum we visited in Campeche, but also our favorite, rivaling even the monumental and more modern Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida for the most enjoyable museum of our trip.

Highly subjective personal rating: 8/10
[If you go to only one museum in Campeche, go here.]

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, 26 May 2015.

Yucatán Road Trip: Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, Mérida


Between Dzibilchaltún and Mérida’s city center sits the strikingly contemporary building of the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. Built in 2012 in the shape of an abstracted ceiba tree (which in Maya mythology unites the three levels of the world), the museum expertly combines a vast collection of artifacts with up-to-date technology and display techniques, including immersive, multi-channel animations.

The Gran Museo divides its gallery spaces into two physically separated sections. During our visit, the first held an exhibition that was both innovative and straight-up weird. We never did figure out exactly what the thesis of the show was supposed to be (something related to evolution or extinction or how different cultures interpret the natural world?), but it included information on meteors as well as living, imagined, and extinct animals using geological fragments, fossils, European Renaissance prints, replicas of Maya artifacts, and a life-size installation representing the extinction and evolution of dinosaurs. Despite the jumble of ideas apparent throughout this section, most of the actual objects were interesting, while the unusual juxtapositions between seemingly unrelated items kept us engaged as well as confused.

Even so, I will admit to being relieved when we entered the second section, dedicated to Maya history and the museum’s permanent collection of artifacts. These galleries alone are well worth a visit to the Gran Museo, as they include a plethora of fascinating objects, many of which diverge significantly from what you can find in textbooks or even specialist publications on Maya cultures. Also refreshing were the explanatory texts, many of which appear in Spanish, Mayan, and English and reflect a perspective that somehow feels both personal and scholarly.

Highly subjective personal rating: 8.5/10 [strongly recommended]

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 21, 2015.

Beautiful mess: a visit to Brandon Anschultz’s studio in Lafayette Square, St. Louis

Brandon Anschultz in his studio, April 22, 2015. The paint objects above him each take about a year to make.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, April 22, 2015.

Return to Crystal Bridges

Hiram Powers, Proserpine, c. 1840, marble.
Tim Liddy, The Horror, 2014, enamel and oil on copper. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Leo Villareal, Buckyball, 2012, aluminum tubing clad with LED lights atop aluminum plinth. Loaned courtesy of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, Gering and Lopez Gallery, and Leo Villareal.
Jeila Gueramian, IT’S YOU (detail), 2014; crocheted quilting, batting, and LED lights. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Henry Kirke Brown, The Choosing of the Arrow, 1849, bronze.
Jamie Adams, niagaradown from the series, Niagara, 2013, oil on linen. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Randolf Rogers, Atala and Chactas, 1864, marble.
Adam Belt, Through the Looking Glass (James Webb Telescope Mirror), 2011; two-way mirror, mirror, wood, and LED lights. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Hiromi Mizugai Moneyhun; Moths 1, 5, and 7; 2013; hand-cut paper. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Gabriel Dawe, Plexus No. 27, 2014; thread, wood, and hooks. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Miki Baird, swatch…the weft and warp of red walker, 2010–12, 1/2″ x 1/4″ archival pigment prints. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Crystal Bridges Museum cafeteria with Jeff Koons, Hanging Heart (Gold/Magenta), 1994–2006, high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating and yellow brass.
Jenny Holzer, Venice Installation: Gallery D (Second Antechamber) (detail), 1990, Italian marble tiles.
Elie Nadelman, Woman’s Head, before 1915, bronze. Alfred Stieglitz Collection.
Arthur Garfield Dove, Red Tree and Sun, 1929, oil on canvas. Alfred Stieglitz Collection.
Hamilton Poe, Stack, 2013; box fans, sombreros, and weighted plastic eggs. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Peter Glenn Oakley, Stack (2011) and Cassette Stack (2014), marble. Collections of North Carolina Museum of Art and Allen Thomas, Jr., on loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Museum exterior
Richard Estes, Reflections of the Woolworth Building, 2006, oil on board.
John James Audubon, Osprey and Weakfish, 1829, oil on canvas on hardboard. Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., on loan for John James Audubon and the Artist as Naturalist.
Laurel Roth Hope, Biodiversity Suits for Urban Pigeons: Dodo II (foreground) and Biodiversity Suits for Urban Pigeons: Passenger Pigeon II (background); yarn, polyurethane, pewter, glass, epoxy, and walnut. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Museum exterior.
Norman Rockwell, Rosie the Riveter, 1943, oil on canvas.
Emma Marie Cadwalader-Guild, Free, c. 1876, basswood.
Dan Webb, Destroyer, 2012, carved fir. Private collection, on loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Jonathan Schipper, Slow Room, 2014; household objects and furniture, cables, pulley, and electric motor. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Charles Bird King, Wai-Kee-Chai, Crouching Eagle, c. 1824, oil on panel.
Jeila Gueramian, IT’S YOU (detail), 2014; crocheted quilting, batting, and LED lights. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Michael Menchaca, Index of Figural Archetypes and Recurring Pattern Ornamentation, 2013, digital prints. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Zoë Charlton, Dreamers and Builders from the series Festoon, 2012, collage and gouache on paper. On loan for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now.
Museum exterior, with view of café.
All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz. November 27–28, 2014.

Leo Villareal’s “Buckyball”

Leo Villareal, Buckyball, 2012. Aluminum tubing clad with LED lights atop aluminum plinth. 30 ft. x 144 in. x 144 in. (914.4 x 365.8 x 365.8 cm). Installed at Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR. Loaned courtesy of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, Gering & Lopez Gallery, and Leo Villareal.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, November 28, 2014.

Laumeier Sculpture Park, St. Louis, MO

Alexander Liberman’s The Way at Laumeier Sculpture Park
Judith Shea, Public Goddess, 1992 and Terry Allen, Laumeier U-ME-UM, 1998
Niki de Saint Phalle, Ricardo Cat, 1999
Manuel Neri, Aurelia Roma, 1994 (white marble wrapped for the weather) and Tony Tasset, Eye, 2007
Aurelia Roma and Yo_Cy (Christine Yogiaman and Ken Tracy), Loom Portal, 2011
Jenny Holzer, one of Ten Plaques from the Living Series, 1980–82
Yo_Cy (Christine Yogiaman and Ken Tracy), Loom Portal (detail of exterior section), 2011
Tony Tasset, Eye, 2007
Mark di Suvero, Bornibus, 1985–87
Mark di Suvero, Destino, 2003
Charles Ginnever, Crete, 1976-78
Alexander Liberman, The Way, 1972–80, eighteen salvaged steel oil tanks
Vito Acconci, Face of the Earth #3, 1988 (under renovation)
Robert Lobe, The Palm at the End of the Parking Lot, 1995
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1984
Donald Lipski, Ball? Ball! Wall? Wall!, 1994
Mark Menin, Cores for Laumeier, 2003
George Greenamyer, Heritage Schooner for Debra Lakin, September 30, 1998

Alison Saar, Leelinau, 1997


All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, December 2011.