If you have any connections with the South – Texas, Arizona, Mexico, Southern California – you’ll know how gorgeous Mexican folk art can be. Filling the space with blood-red vermilions and royal blues, with grinning skeletons and pious saints, with tin and papier-maché, it’s somehow larger than life. But we don’t get to see a lot of it up here in the Pacific Northwest. Fortunately for Tacomans, as of last weekend, there’s a whole gallery full of it at Tacoma Art Museum, complementing and expanding their usual Dia de los Muertos offerings of giant lobby tapetes (sand paintings) and community ofrendas (altars).
“Folk Treaures of Mexico” brings to Tacoma a smattering of historical and contemporary Mexican folk art from the Nelson A. Rockefeller collection housed in the San Antonio Museum of Art, which has the country’s largest quantity of this genre. At over 3,000 objects the Rockefeller collection is way to large to travel completely, but the TAM exhibit gives a delicious, spicy-hot taste, with a broad range of media and period.
It’s also a wide range of size. The art starts tiny, with a mirrored case full of thumb-sized clay figurines roping cows and carrying market goods, through painstakingly tiny straw mosaics so shadowed and subtle it looks like a painting at four feet away, past long woven rebozos and an intricately yarned ceremonial “tapestry” all the way to giant eight-foot demons made in the 1980s by the famed Linares family, constructed of papier-mache and painted in grinning black, red and blue.
In between there are some beautiful artifacts, all telling stories of both contemporary, tourist-inspired Mexico and the Mexico that Nelson A. Rockefeller found on his 1933 honeymoon, when he began collecting. There’s a 1920s Pueblo saddle, incredibly detailed in pale tooled leather, the leaves and flowers swimming over the entire saddle accented with a horn and silver pommel and stirrups. There are large terracotta and stoneware pitchers, some glazed in earthtones, others simply burnished with the traditional rubbing stones handed down through generations.
There’s a carved wood tortilla press from the 1900s to imprint breads with Easter motifs, a carved wooden altar, an oil painting able to be rolled up scroll-fashion for an itinerant priest, featuring the typical Mexican palette of deep red, bright blue and Kelly green. Milagros (tiny shapes of arms, feet, animals or whatever is the subject of intercessory prayer) made of tin and silver hang on ribbons, as they would have on a saint’s vestments in a church. Masks and historic wooden children’s toys tell of games and rituals. An enormous Tree of Death from the 1950s, with clay skulls, leaves and flowers wired in joyful harmony for Dia de los Muertos.
Nearby another Day of the Dead custom lives on in the Linares-made Skeleton Street Vendor, a painted papier-mache skeleton lady complete with cute skeleton baby in a rebozo on her back, grinning happily.
It’s a fantastic exhibition for all ages, with an informative video about how the giant demons are used in daily life, and even a traditional photographer’s backdrop of a Mexican church town for visitors to snap their own souvenir shots.
“Folk Treasures of Mexico” is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays through Feb. 19. $10/$8/free for five and under and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays. Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. 253-272-4258, www.tacomaartmuseum.org