Why “Roman Art” Looks Better at SAM Than the Louvre

The colony strikes back.

You know it's a real blockbuster when the Lusty Lady breaks out in Latin. "Veni, Vidi, Veni," reads their sign, in the greatest SAM response in the Lady's history. (Second place, shortly after the big reopening: "Hammer On, Big Guy!"). And there's no doubt that "Roman Art From the Louvre" is designed to draw crowds and move merch. The gift shop—conveniently located in the gallery itself—was already stocked at the press preview with cases of jewelry, piles of books, and armies of statuettes, all bathed in the same expert lighting as the exhibit. There is something vaguely embarrassing about all the hype, especially SAM's shameless trumpeting of another museum's name, even if that other museum is the Louvre. But disdain the hoopla all you want; it would be a mistake to skip this dazzling, extravagantly beautiful show. Still, maybe you doubt the Louvre sent its best stuff to the provinces? An immediate show of force is deployed to demolish your doubt—and also burn down your doubt's temples and plow salt into its fields. First, mounted in the entryway, the monstrous marble head of a noblewoman named Lucilla, originally part of a second-century statue that towered 26 feet over the terrified citizens of Carthage. Then, in the cavernous first gallery, an army of marble figures from the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty laid out like pieces on a surreally oversized game board. The arrangement forms a family tree, from Augustus and Livia in the second century B.C. to Nero in the first century A.D. (The studious can follow along with the wall panels provided by UW art prof Margaret Laird.) Pinpoint track lighting brings out the forms in dramatic chiaroscuro, an effect heightened by the maroon walls behind them. Other galleries are given different wall colors to bring out their respective themes—yellow for objects associated with citizenship, purple for religious artifacts, etc. The color-coded approach doesn't exactly feel patronizing, but this is definitely an old-fashioned, top-down approach to curating—Rome 101 as taught by the experts to the masses. Someone at the press preview mumbled a question about colonialism and "constructed narratives," but there's no grad-school agenda here, or any agenda, really, other than education and pure visual pleasure. "As much as anything, the exhibit is about the common visual language that held the empire together," says Laird, who has helped out with the show since SAM doesn't have its own curator of classical art. It's also a visual language that can become a blur of overfamiliar motifs—the busts, columns, and mosaics comprise a set of clichés used so often in hack ad campaigns (like the one for the show itself) and second-rate government buildings that we hardly even see them. A moment in the presence of the real thing is enough to cut through this accumulated mental haze (though it should be noted that the "real thing" often includes Renaissance restorations and additions). There is a richness of thrillingly unexpected detail in every corner. My favorites so far include the way carved faces at the corners of a marble sarcophagus weirdly flatten out along two planes, as if pressed into the edges of an invisible triangle. And how the tiles of a mosaic depicting Trojan War heroes seem to be applied with a cartoonish casualness when examined up close, yet somehow summon a shimmering delicacy of texture and depth when viewed from across the gallery. "Roman Art" is more than big, dramatic gestures, though. There are plenty of pieces that give a vivid sense of everyday life, including blown-glass perfume bottles, lamps, jewelry, wall copings, and hair pins. For pure visual punch, you may actually be better off seeing this stuff here than at the Louvre, which relies on natural light and bunches pieces together somewhat arbitrarily, according to material (bronzes with bronzes, marbles with marbles, etc.). Occupying SAM's entire fourth floor, the show is the first since the museum's expansion to give a real feeling of expansiveness. "Roman Art" gives a glimmer of the luxurious, ambient feeling of museums like the Met, where you can sit in one gallery of fabulous objects and contemplate several more galleries of fabulous objects receding into the distance. Unfortunately, and this is the only serious complaint I have, there aren't a lot of places to sit and contemplate. The space seems pretty blatantly designed to efficiently shuffle the crowds through. I guess there's no way around this, though, given the tight schedule of appearances for other crowds in other cities; the show has already packed them in at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and is next following the Sonics to Oklahoma City this summer. But if you catch "Roman Art" on a quiet weekday morning, you may find that life in the provinces is sometimes not so bad. visualarts@seattleweekly.com

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