Weird and Wonderful Art in Santa Ana

The eclectic mix of art found in the Bowers Museum’s “Weird And Wonderful” exhibition are both strange and great. Brought forth from the darkest corners of the museum’s storerooms, the artwork comes from all corners of the globe.

Walking through these types of exhibits is always like taking a step back in time. But, with the museum’s informative labels stationed alongside each piece of art in this exhibit, this particular journey has a great tour guide.

Ever been to a museum where the art stands alone, where you are just expected to magically know what exactly is going on with the piece? This museum takes education seriously and provides useful facts about each artwork, because, you know, shrunken heads situated inside glass cases aren’t nearly as exciting if the museum does not take the time to elaborate on early 20th century Shuar culture in the Amazon.

The Shuars took the heads of slain neighboring warriors during times of hostilities and brought them back to their tribe to boil in plant and herb mixtures to initiate head shrinking. In addition, they also sewed shut the mouth and eyes to prevent the soul of the deceased from escaping. The result of this long and complicated process was a doll-sized head that represented power to its Shuar owner. The head is frighteningly well-preserved in its midget state.

Equally well preserved in the Mexican and Central American portion of the collection is a clay sculpture of a man from Mexico, circa 200-900. This anything-but-ordinary man lays hunched over in an odd and uncomfortable position. With closer reading, this sculpture represented a man with a type of deformation most likely caused by syphilis. Apparently, in a number of ancient American cultures, individuals with abnormalities were viewed as members of high society and not as diseased freaks as they sometimes (and unfortunately) are viewed today.

Some labels also reveal what various ancient cultures believed in and how their beliefs shaped their lives. Without reading the label, one might never guess that a small, but eye-catching, sculpture of an ibis from Egypt could exemplify how certain beliefs affect every aspect of one’s life.

The ibis sculpture is a reference to Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, knowledge and the underworld, who was depicted as having the head of an ibis and the body of a human. One of Thoth’s numerous jobs was to use scales to weigh the heart portion of the soul of the deceased against the feather of truth in order to determine an individual’s worthiness to enter the eternal life. Therefore, an evil heart must be a heavier heart, and would fail Thoth’s test. It wouldn’t be surprising if this myth encouraged Thoth’s followers to try to live more virtuous lives.

Although the majority of the art comes from different countries and distant centuries past, one large area near the rear of the exhibit lies a room devoted to mostly American oil painters from the late 1800s to early 1900s. This is one area where you can relax, perhaps take a short break from reading and marvel at the craftsmanship of the paintings.

One wonderful painting, “Oranges in Tissues With Vase” by William J. McCloskey, makes the $9 museum entry fee worth it. The brightly colored and poignantly realistic oranges are painted in the most intriguing way. Here is one piece where words alone just can’t do this painting justice.

However, not all of McCloskey’s paintings featured in this room were awe-inspiring. One painting portraying his daughter was just downright creepy. Fortunately, the rest of the paintings, many of which illustrated Southern California land during the early 1900s, drew attention away from that fact.

From Egypt to Ecuador to Southern California and several places in between, the “Weird And Wonderful” exhibition captures the beauty of diversity. These are merely a few of my highlights while visiting the exhibit; the rest of the exhibit is at your discretion.

If you feel like learning more about otherworldly cultures or a little more history about your own, or if you’re just simply in the mood to admire a Japanese Wakazashi, head down to Santa Ana and view “Weird And Wonderful” at the Bowers Museum. The exhibition runs until Sunday, Nov. 30.