Maya pottery exhibition presents science to offer insights into ancient artistic practices

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Maya pottery exhibition presents science to offer insights into ancient artistic practices
Installation photograph of Look Three Ways: Maya Painted Pottery. Photograph by Stacey Evans, courtesy of The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.- Look Three Ways: Maya Painted Pottery is on view through Dec. 31 at The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia alongside three other exhibitions. The exhibition draws from The Fralin’s collection of Maya painted pottery made between 250-900 C.E. to highlight three approaches used by scholars to restore lost knowledge about the complex social networks in which Maya pottery was circulated.

The homelands of the ancient Maya spanned a vast region that today includes central and south Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. Maya peoples expressed their cultural practices and belief systems through distinct artistic styles and a hieroglyphic writing system. Over time, many pieces of pottery have been removed from ancient Maya sites without archaeological excavation. Even though knowledge of where vessels came from is lost, they can nevertheless offer many insights about Maya artistic production.

The exhibition addresses epigraphy, the study of the written texts painted on vessels; art historical analysis of visual characteristics such as shape, size and composition of the imagery; and instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA), a technique developed in the material sciences to determine the geographic locations where the vessels were made.

INAA establishes the concentration of trace elements (such as rare earths) of a vessel’s ceramic paste, yielding a fingerprint of the specific mixture of clays and tempering materials blended by the ancient potter. This chemical composition reflects potting behavior as much as geographic location because a potter, workshop or group of related workshops would have distinctive source materials and paste recipes. The results of INAA sampling of several vessels in the exhibition are presented for the first time.

Also on view through Dec. 31 are Processing Abstraction, which explores abstract artists’ experimental applications of paint, and N’dakinna Landscapes Acknowledged, which highlights the Indigenous terrain portrayed in landscapes of the White Mountains of New Hampshire painted by Benjamin Champney, Samuel Lancaster Gerry, Samuel W. Griggs and Sylvester Phelps Hodgdon. Radioactive Inactives: Patrick Nagatani & Andrée Tracey, on view through Nov. 26, presents a series of 11 fictional portraits of people in highly constructed sets that resemble domestic interiors.

Look Three Ways: Maya Painted Pottery is curated by Adriana Greci Green, Ph.D., curator of Indigenous arts of the Americas, and Dorie Reents-Budet, Ph.D., a research associate at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. The exhibition is made possible through support from the Angle Exhibition Fund and The Fralin Museum of Art Volunteer Board. The Fralin Museum of Art’s programming is generously supported by The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation and in-kind donors include WTJU 91.1 FM and Ivy Publications LLC’s Charlottesville Welcome Book.

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