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Art instead of artifact

The motifs in this ancient Mesa Verde black-on-white bowl are examples of "isomeric" designs. The term comes from the word "isomer," the chemistry term for a molecule with identical qualities to another but with a mirror-image structure.

The motifs in this ancient Mesa Verde black-on-white bowl are examples of “isomeric” designs. The term comes from the word “isomer,” the chemistry term for a molecule with identical qualities to another but with a mirror-image structure.

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Over several years of studying ancestral Pueblo pottery design, Joseph Traugott came to realize the “unpainted areas are just as important as the painted ones.”

According to the art historian and curator, Pueblo potters from 900 to 1300 conceived their designs with both elements in mind, painted in a way that created reverse, mirror-image motifs. Traugott says the complex designs also can create optical and spacial illusions for viewers.

Traugott and anthropologist Scott Ortman have co-written a book outlining their interpretations of what they’ve coined “isomeric” designs in ancient Pueblo pottery, as well as how and why these designs were used.

“Painted Reflections: Isomeric Designs in Ancestral Pueblo Pottery” was published recentlyby the Museum of New Mexico Press. The two authors will be at events in Santa Fe this week to discuss and sign copies of the book.

Traugott hopes the book provides new insight into Pueblo life 1,000 years ago. It’s also important to him to make the point that the ancient pottery-makers were truly artists.

“What we’ve tried to convey that hasn’t been conveyed much in the previous scholarship on ancient Pueblo pottery is how, because of the way the designs are constructed, they take on a sort of dynamic and sort of oscillating kind of quality,” Ortman also said, “where if you stare at them and let your eyes notice what your eyes do, if you notice what your visual system does when you look at these designs, in a sense they change right in front of your eyes.”

“They start being active and really dynamic and expressing movement and other things like that,” he went on to say. “And just as works of art, they’re really quite astonishing… .”

The authors’ phrase “isomeric design” comes from isomers, which in chemistry are compounds with identical qualities but with mirror-image structures.

This Gallup black-on-white pitcher is an example of tessellated isomers. The “Painted Reflection” authors liken these repetitive motifs to tiles or jigsaw puzzle pieces. (Courtesy of Museum of New Mexico Press)

This Gallup black-on-white pitcher is an example of tessellated isomers. The “Painted Reflection” authors liken these repetitive motifs to tiles or jigsaw puzzle pieces. (Courtesy of Museum of New Mexico Press)

Traugott’s journey of studying the pottery started about seven years ago. He was curating the New Mexico Museum of Art’s “It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico” show when he noticed one ancient bowl, a white piece with black designs made in the Gallup area between 950 and 1100, that looked different when photographed on a dark background.

“The unpainted designs popped forward spatially,” said Traugott. “It really looked like a white design on a dark background.”

It was the first time he realized an optical illusion emerging from Puebloan ancestral designs. He likened it to Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin’s famous vase diagram, also known as the figure-ground vase. The black and white image can be seen in two ways – a back vase or, in the white blank space around the vase, the profiles of two faces.

Seeing the old bowl in a photograph as opposed to right in front of him made Traugott think about how people in the modern world are “readers.”

“So we’ve spent decades training our minds to look for little squiggly marks on white paper,” he said.

“So 125 years ago as archaeologists began looking at these designs, it was natural for them to assume the painted element was the important design,” he added. “As we look at these isomeric designs, it becomes clear that those unpainted spaces are just as important as the painted ones. They work together as a duality.”

A fragment of an ancestral La Plata black-on-white bowl. Because the artist used too much water, the grids used to form the design are visible. (

A fragment of an ancestral La Plata black-on-white bowl. Because the artist used too much water, the grids used to form the design are visible. (

Over time, Traugott partnered with Ortman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder and a scholar of indigenous history. Together they started piecing together their interpretations of isomeric designs, which originated in Pueblo weavings and evolved in new ways as they moved onto the pottery.

Their book describes four different types of design strategies in the artifacts that create dual or reversed images.

Some of these include “painted-and-unpainted” isomers, in which the painted elements are designed in such a way that they create a reverse design in the unpainted parts. Another example is “tessellated” isomers, something like jigsaw puzzle pieces that fit together. There are also optical illusions, some similar to the Rubin diagram and with spatial tricks, like how a larger square drawn next to a smaller square can sometimes make the smaller square look farther away.

The back of the book, with images of 100 pieces of ancient pottery, is meant to be a guide to finding these kinds of designs – often multiple ideas were used on one vessel – and the illusions that can appear from them.

Using pencil and paper, Traugott “reverse-engineered” various designs from the pottery. For complicated motifs, he said the process could take days to decipher. This practice also demonstrated the particular skill that was behind imagining as well as executing the designs, especially when the pot-makers had only one chance to get it right.

“If you try to paint this freehand, you’d be all right in the beginning, but you’d begin to miss the spacing and in the end it wouldn’t come together,” he explained. “By reverse-engineering it, you can see it is a series of fairly simple divisions of space and painting simple marks that allow them to structure the organizational idea and then inpaint one side or the other of the layout.”

The symbolism of ‘dualities’

These types of pottery designs stopped appearing around 1300, Ortman said, which the book says likely had to do with societal issues that arose within Pueblo life in the Chaco Canyon/Four Corners area and the subsequent migrations to different areas in the region.

But the philosophical ideas the designs are rooted in have stayed relevant in Pueblo communities, said Ortman. The authors make the connection between these designs and a larger message of dualities, or “complementary halves,” that have been relevant in Pueblo cultures and many others.

Ortman and Traugott say these important pairings in Pueblo culture include the connection between the physical realm and the spiritual realm or those between men and women, summer and winter and wet and dry. He said in some ways, he feels these ideas are expressed more “directly” in the ancient pottery than in more contemporary work.

“I’m sure the more perceptive and the people that were more inclined to abstract thought in the society recognized these things, but whether it was something everyone recognized and talked about, is actually kind of an interesting question,” said Ortman.

Ortman emphasized that while the new book presents the author’s scholarly interpretations, there may be more levels of knowledge about the pottery or ideas about the significance of the designs they don’t know about.

“These artworks are really rich and they’re a good field for developing all sorts of cultural interpretation,” he said.

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