Art and Writing in the Maya Cities, A.D. 600-800: A Poetics of Line
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 332 pp.; 16 color ills., 120 b/w. $85.00
This is a challenging book that employs a unique vocabulary in an attempt to shift the goals of Maya art history from the dominant model of the past half century. Grounded in progress made in reading the inscriptions carved into monumental sculpture, Maya art history pursued an iconographic project in which visual forms were treated as vehicles for meaning. Often based in structuralist models of correspondence in which the substitution of different visual elements allowed their identification as equivalent, this approach led to the present understanding of Maya artworks as the records of specific histories of ruling families and the rituals and ceremonies through which they enacted their power. It has involved extensive comparison and the assembly from historical and modern descendant communities of explications of intended meanings. Less attention has been paid to the aesthetic and experiential understanding of these works. Adam Herring's central argument is that "Maya visual work was preoccupied with the moment of physical awareness in cultural discourse, with eyes that scan, fingers that point, and bodies that move" (p. 1) indexed in "the calligrapher's touch," a "poetics of line" (p. 9) Herring envisions as coursing across the surfaces of sculptures, ceramic vessels, temples, and landscapes.
This is a bold claim, one that does not in the end entirely convince. Perhaps because the author himself senses this, he adds to chapters describing line flowing across surfaces an epilogue that seeks to contrast and integrate the proposed poetics of line with a distinct visuality exhibited in the representation of woven mats. What is accomplished in the chapters preceding this reconsideration is an ambitious survey of Maya visual culture unlike any other published to date. In many ways, this book presents an important opening for what could be an entirely new approach to Maya "art," one that sidesteps the temptations of iconographic interpretation and engages the experiential dimensions of producing and living with crafted things.
The initial trail for the book is calligraphic line, defined here as "little more than a painted curve, a hook of pigment ... an arc or moving angle, a fluid mannerism beholden to the easy motion and shifting weight of the loaded bristle across a prepared surface" (p. 2). The calligraphic line provides definition of the spatial and chronological scope of the study. It is portrayed as unique in the history of the region, "the visual signature of the lowland Maya polities after about A.D. 400, on to their decline around A.D. 800" (p. 80).
As the author notes in his review of previous work in the field, the idea of the painter's hand as central to Maya visuality has long been a staple of art history. Herring strives to supplement this characterization with both a deeper explication of how writing informed visual culture more broadly and a consideration of how "writing" falls short as the trope used to stand for this broader visuality. In place of a dichotomy of text and image, Herring suggests attention to "a third term, one common to both 'text' and 'image': painterly facture" (p. 26). The brief discussions of the problem with defining Maya visuality as a form of text writ large found at various points in the book are especially interesting. It is perhaps in keeping with the author's intent to change the terms of engagement that the expressed interest in "painterly facture" does not receive prolonged analysis or frame the final section of the book.
After a historical introduction, the first chapter of the book examines at length one stone carving that carries a long inscription without additional figural imagery. The second chapter turns to an understanding of brushwork itself as a physical phenomenon, "an indexical rhetoric of the body, one of many such manifestations of hand-eye discipline and haptic physicality in the material culture" of the Maya (p. 24). Indexicality, both here and in later parts of the book, is used to register the foregrounding of the gestures through which the artist made his mark in the visual form. Indexicality is to be understood as itself an expression of the value placed on physicality in Maya courtly life. The transition to the following chapter comes through a study of the translation from two-dimensional to...