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Digging the Ceramics in Chicago

WHAT: "Casas Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest" at the Art Institute of Chicago

WHEN: April 22-Aug. 13

Ceramics excavated from Mexico and the American Southwest will be displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. Among the featured works: top right, a jar with serpent motifs; above, a smoking male effigy; and bottom right, a bowl with a hunter figure.


WHY GO: For the past half-century, excavators have unearthed intricate ceramics from the northwestern desert of Mexico and parts of the American Southwest, known as the ancient Casas Grandes area. Sixty of these vessels have made their way to Chicago for the first major exhibition of art produced by this cultural area, where they will be paired with 60 ceramics of other early southwestern designs.

The excavations reveal that Casas Grandes was a major cultural extension of the Southwest. Its center was the adobe town of Paquime, which covered more than 100 acres and flourished between 1250 and 1475.

Prepare to be visually challenged, says museum curator Richard Townsend. "We are more accustomed to looking at flat things because we are painting-oriented, but here we are dealing with traditions that didn't have paper or canvas, and so they painted the surface of these beautiful subtle shapes," he said. "It's an intellectual effort at first, and then you become adept at it."

DON'T MISS . . . the black and white olla , or jar, excavated from west-central New Mexico and dating between 1100 and 1250. The visual ambiguity between the black and white contrasts will keep your eye shifting between the two areas.

There's a bowl (950-1150), also from New Mexico, featuring a figure holding a bow and arrow and wearing a heron headdress, which signifies that he is a superior hunter. Also, look for the jar from 1280-1450 that depicts two horned-and-plumed serpents, macaw-headed motifs and birds. The jar's design is a mythical composite creature that symbolizes the power of rainstorms, lightning, rivers and running water. The piece also shows the Casas Grandes culture's belief in the sacred connection between human society and the order of nature.

EXTRAS: Pay a visit to Millennium Park (312-742-1168, ), adjacent to the institute (you can't miss it). The 24-acre park opened less than two years ago and features works by Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa; it also has a stunning outdoor music pavilion designed by Frank Gehry. Two lectures of note: Arizona State University professor Barbara Moulard will give a talk on "Authority and Artistry in Casas Grandes Ceramic Painting" June 8 and the institute's research assistant Elizabeth Pope will explain the imagery of Casas Grandes ceramics on July 13. Both lectures are free and will be held at 6 p.m. in the museum's Price Auditorium.

SLEEPS: Ten Chicago hotels, including many familiar nationwide chains, offer packages that include passes to the institute. Visit for a complete directory. Included in the list are some hotels exclusive to Chicago.

The recently renovated Essex Inn (800 S. Michigan Ave., 800-621-6909, ) is across the street from Grant Park and within walking distance of the institute. Its "Masterpiece Mania" package starts at $135 per night and includes two exhibit passes.

The Whitehall Hotel (105 E. Delaware Pl., 800-948-4255, ) promises European grace and grandeur on Chicago's Magnificent Mile. Its "Day of Art" package starts at $179 per night and includes two passes.

EATS: The institute's Garden Restaurant tweaks its menu to invoke the spirit of the American Southwest, with a dash of Chicago thrown in. Its three-course lunch ($25 per person or $39 with wine) includes tortilla soup, pork tenderloin stuffed with chorizo, and a chocolate pyramid dusted with Mexican cocoa.

Keeping with the Mexican theme, chef Rick Bayless runs two joints that share the same front door: Frontera Grill is a casual spot offering classic Mexican dishes ranging from $7 to $27, and the upscale Topolobampo features a five-course tasting dinner that'll run you $75. Call for reservations two weeks in advance. 445 N. Clark St., 312-661-1434.

INFORMATION: The Art Institute of Chicago is at 111 S. Michigan Ave. Details: 312-443-3600, .

*Saw it, found it interesting, thought I'd share!
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