• Arthur Bruso


We guard our property in many ways: with alarms, fences, locks, and dogs. We secret our valuables away in safes and boxes, complete with combinations and passwords to keep the criminal and the curious from gaining access. We place a value on what is precious to us and keep it protected so that we and our loved ones can benefit from any financial rewards or aesthetic joy that may be inherent in it. To lose what is precious or valuable to us through theft, deception or act of God is considered a tragedy.

In our modern society, most of us only think of the tangible ways in which we can secure our belongings to ourselves. We rarely think of supernatural means of guarding our belongings (or even ourselves) from the evil that would target our corporal wealth or even our spiritual selves. While we may have decided through generations of scientific learning and practical experience that spiritual protection is ineffective at best, this was not always the case. Many cultures have practiced forms of defense and guardianship that take the form of invisible protection from incorporeal beings. These methods were often used in conjunction with more practical means.

The Western Mexican civilizations centered in the modern states of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima had learned to bury their dead deep under the ground to keep them protected from the physical disturbances of animals and climate that would defile the body and prevent it from entering the afterlife. But how to keep the covetous humans who would pilfer the goods that were deemed necessary to assist and accompany the deceased spirit to the afterlife? The answer partly was to situate the tomb under a dwelling where the living were sheltered and conceal the entrance. Living on top of the grave would keep the family on constant vigil for would be desecraters. But this was only the beginning. There would have to be protections to keep the deceased spirit from wandering the surface world and haunting the living. There would have to be some form of magic that would help the newly dead to travel to the land of the dead and be born again.

The ancient Western Mexicans of 300 BC devised the culture of the shaft tomb for the interment of their elite dead. These tombs were dug out of tuff, a bedrock that is formed out of the compaction and consolidation of volcanic ash. This rock is easily worked and forms the substrate of much of Western Mexico. Shaft tombs were constructed by digging a shaft straight down into the bedrock about 10 to 65 feet. At the bottom of the shaft, a low-ceilinged chamber would be hollowed out large enough to lay out one or more bodies. The bodies would be surrounded by various grave goods: pots (which often contained food), tools, jewelry, and household implements (like grinding stones for maize and spindles for weaving). These items would be needed to complete the afterlife journey and to keep the spirit comfortable. Included in the grave goods were also clay figures. The clay figures were of various genres, some depicting situations or people from life and others that were for magical protection and guidance.

Left: Floor and elevation plan of a typical pre-Columbian tomb of the Colima-Jalisco-Nayarit area (A.D. 300-900). Right: Burial arrangement of a Shaft Tomb in Nayarit. The vertical shaft represented by the square on the right is connected to the burial chamber on the left by a short tunnel. The bodies were arranged with their heads to the walls and their feet to the center of the chamber, like the spokes of a wheel.

Underground, within the darkness and silence of the earth, was considered by many cultures to be a place of transformation and regeneration. All life came from the earth and all life had to return to it. The tomb was the place where the body of the deceased returned to the womb of the Great Mother, to be reborn into the afterlife and join the ancestors. For this stage of the cosmic cycle to be completed successfully, the Jalisco culture of Western Mexico believed that a guardian spirit needed to accompany the deceased to fend off any physical or spiritual entity that may try to deter, confuse, or interrupt the soul. A soul, interrupted from its journey to the afterlife, would become a wandering spirit who would haunt the family and village. A wandering spirit could cause all kinds of difficulty, stress and fear to the family and/or the community through its haunting. It is important that the deceased have the peace and security of it’s tomb to complete the necessary final stages.

A reconstruction of a simple shaft tomb from West Mexico during the Late Formative to Classic period. In the Museo Regional de Guadalajara.

The sculptural head pictured at the top of this essay is from the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It is the head of a warrior from a shaft grave located in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. He wears a feather crested, wooden (or wicker) helmet of a warrior of what would become the Ameca people who lived in the area of what is now the modern Mexican state of Jalisco. On his face are traces of slip painting that indicate the tattooing or face painting of the community. He has wide staring eyes with pronounced rims, which are nearly hidden by his helmet; a long, exaggerated aquiline nose; and a straight, wide, unmodeled mouth that looks like it was just a lineal mark made by a pointed tool into the wet clay as an indicator for a necessary feature. These set, grim features create the necessary seriousness of tone for a sentinel whose mission is to protect and attack. The chin has been built up by adding a strip of clay to strengthen the jawline to continue the air of severity to the face. The dot and striped pattern of facial decoration almost make it look like the hair of a beard. My first impression of this head was that it was an indigenous Mexican interpretation of a conquistador. With the pointed nose and the added chin, the features look European. But when compared with extant examples of other Ameca warriors, the resemblance to the usurper Europeans fade. Originally, this warrior head would have sat on a body that would have been covered by a barrel shaped cuirass to protect the torso, and would be brandishing a type of mace-spear, in a stance of ready defense. His legs would have been sculpted stout, with wide, flat feet to ensure that the figure would stand upright against any enemy that would threaten the interred body. The substantial legs and feet also kept the figure standing, always on guard through the ages.

Complete figure of an ancient Pre Columbian Jalisco Pottery Warrior, Aneca-Azatham style, ca. 100 BCE to 250 CE. An effigy figure modeled wearing incised crested helmet and barrel type cuirass, knees slightly bent and club brandished, massive feet and bare toes. Size: 14-1/2" h.

But what was this warrior guarding against? Certainly, the tangible, physical pilfering of the sacred space of the grave. The goods that were buried with the deceased had their own value in everyday life and would be coveted by the living. But there was more to keep at bay than the sticky fingers of the living. There were many evil and seductive forces and spirits that would try and deter the soul of the dead away from its journey to the afterlife. The individual themselves, may want to stay on earth to be close to their spouse or friends and not continue their cosmic obligation. The warrior figure was there to force back the spirts of seduction that would tempt the soul to linger or to encourage, with the point of a spear, the reluctant soul to fulfill its destiny. The warrior was tasked with keeping the cosmic order cycling. It was his job to ensure that the soul under his guardianship found its way to the afterlife and completed it rebirth to live again.

Each culture must face the inevitable fact that each living person must die. But is death the end of a person? For most cultures the answer is a hopeful “no.” To this end, many rituals have been devised to assist the dead in its transition to whatever was next in the cycle of life. The ancient Mesoamericans of Western Mexico saw death as a continuation and partner of life. They believed that the souls needed to journey through the afterlife and back to the womb to be born again into a new life (kings, however, became gods). They contrived to bury their dead deep in the sacred ground with all that was necessary to continue their work and make the journey to complete their cosmic cycle and to protect the soul from interruption in this final and most necessary of tasks. The warrior head from Jalisco had the responsibility to guard his charge and the goods lain with them from any deviations that would be a deterrent. It was a noble and necessary obligation that kept the cosmos in order.

Arthur Bruso © 2020

To read further on Western Mexican pre-Columbian culture, read my essay on the Colimba Culture Mask here.

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  • Arthur Bruso



IN ANSWER TO HER PRAYERS, to understand the suffering of Christ as he was dying on the cross, St. Theresa of Avila was given the experience of an angel piercing her heart with a golden arrow. Seventy years after her death, Bernini read her account of this experience and created his Ecstasy of St. Theresa in an effort to depict in visual form St. Theresa’s personal apparition. In this exhibition, it was our intention to assemble works that attempt to make visible that which may not only be invisible, but also intimately personal.

John J. Zirkelbach, Untitled, 2007. Photograph with collage, 11 x 14 inches.

Some of the artists in this exhibition build on the tradition of Spirit Photography conceived in the mid 1800’s with the advent of Spiritualism. Those photographic shams and darkroom tricks seemed to capture proof of spirit apparitions and have become how the ghostly is perceived in vernacular thought. John Zirkelbach’s gothic imagery expands on this convention and brings our nightmares into the light. Carol Quint focuses on our more primal horror of death and the corpse.

Other works have their roots in the ideas of Blake, Fuseli, Redon or even Rothko, where the work is of personal visions, the psychological or, as in the case of Peter Davis, an ascendant spiritualism. Katherine Sehr and Ana Maria Delgado approached the subject as a meditation. Delgado’s is the more traditional of the two, with her invocation of the Ave Maria, while Sehr’s nearly becomes a Zen exercise in patience and perseverance, as she covers the page with her granular line. Much like a shaman, Shawn Taylor conjures a totem animal out of bits of flotsam. We see it in the act of sublimation, out of the dust into solid form.

Matt Pych, Still Life #4-14A, 2007. C-print, 18 x 12 inches.

Matt Pych doesn’t reach for the supernatural at all with his brightly colored still lifes of toys and flowers. Instead he challenges our way of seeing by pouring a viscous, transparent liquid in front of the camera lens, which we then must see though. It is this change in our visual reality that creates the apparition. Marc Valega takes the whole idea tongue in cheek; perhaps suggesting it is all a drug induced fantasy.

From agnostic to nirvana; from the floor sweepings of Taylor to our highest power as petitioned by Delgado, the artists have led us on a journey through this elusive and shape shifting apparitional landscape. It is the artists, as always, who have shown us how expansive and inclusive this landscape can be. From them we learn to recognize our fears, give shape to our dreams and that the universe is one.


Fanny Allié, Sarah Anderson, Aaron M. Brown, Arthur Bruso, Alex Callender, Peter A. Davis, Ana Maria Delgado, Jimmy Fike, Bonnie Gloris, Dan Langston, Ross Bennett Lewis,

Raymond E. Mingst, Jeanne Aulaire Mischo, Matt Pych, Carol Quint, Carol Radsprecher,

Katie Sehr, Shawn Taylor, Yoshitaka Teramoto, Marc Valega, Kelly Vetter, John J. Zirkelbach

Arthur Bruso and Raymond E. Mingst, curators © 2007 Curious Matter used with permission

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  • Arthur Bruso

Cabinet of Marine Debris, 2014 cabinet; wood, glass, metal, paint assorted marine debris; plastic, rope 113 x 84 x 32 inches

I'm contemplating this work of art. Mark Dion made his reputation as an artist by reviving the wunderkammer for a post-modernist audience. Here with “Cabinet of Marine Debris,” he makes a statement on the plastic pollution clogging the oceans. HIs concept was to go to islands off of the coast of Alaska, which were at the outlying edge of the North Pacific Gyre - a circular streaming current in the North Pacific that has become infamous as a collecting place for floating, ocean borne plastic - and collect the plastic debris that he found on the beaches. He cleans and arranges the objects he’s found and places them into a specially constructed cabinet.

The cabinet in this instance looks very much like a cupboard that would be found in a fishing cabin or beach house. The white shelves and doors, against the dark painted interior, draws your attention to, and sets off the objects placed on them. The objects are carefully arranged by shape, with special attention to color juxtapositions. The horizontal surface, under glass, even has a collection of bottle caps and other small items arranged in a color spectrum.

Dion, first grabs the views attention with the thoughtful, colorful display of the objects, where we can admire their physicality. It is when we realize that these have all been collected as beach trash, then the environmental message hit home. Many of the bottle shapes are recognizable as containers for cleaning supplies that we use frequently. We rarely consider where the empty container ends up. There is a phenomenon in environmental studies known as the disappearing trash. Humans have this belief that when trash leaves our hands, it disappears. Dion is letting us know that trash does not disappear when we are finished with it. It lingers somewhere on the planet and may float in the ocean for a long time before it is washed up on a far away beach.

Arthur Bruso © 2017

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