Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 28, 2017
Megan E. O'Neil Engaging Ancient Maya Sculpture at Piedras Negras, Guatemala Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. 274 pp.; 10 color ills.; 123 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780806142579)
Alexander Parmington Space and Sculpture in the Classic Maya City New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 288 pp.; 115 b/w ills. Cloth $110.00 (9781107002340)

Megan E. O’Neil’s Engaging Ancient Maya Sculpture at Piedras Negras, Guatemala and Alexander Parmington’s Space and Sculpture in the Classic Maya City introduce elements of time and space in discussing how Maya art and architecture operated and expressed meaning. Both scholars take up the topic of the built environment during the Late Classic Period (seventh to ninth century CE) and anchor their analyses to sites near the Usumacinta River (O’Neil studies Piedras Negras in Petén, Guatemala, while Parmington examines Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico). Both authors focus on viewer experience as an essential feature of the ways art and architecture construct ideology and manipulate onlookers’ movements. O’Neil argues that Classic Maya monuments played active roles in facilitating interactions between objects and beholders. Parmington contends that the display of thematically specific imagery can be connected with varying degrees of restriction and particular viewers. Each author builds on current trends in scholarship focused on spatial and experiential analysis. In doing so, they further refine our understanding of Maya monuments and their audiences through the careful examination of formal qualities employed at specific moments and places.

In Engaging Ancient Maya Sculpture at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, O’Neil examines the dialectical relationship between sculpture and culture in exploring the function of stone monuments and the ways they shape the nature of their performance and reception. Delving into the experiential nature of sculpture and architecture, she considers how audiences interacted with the stelae, altars, and carved panels that embellished their environments. O’Neil demonstrates that stelae—oftentimes perceived to be alive or containing a “vital essence”—promoted certain kinds of reactions at Piedras Negras (3, 15). She argues that their capacity to catalyze responses forging connections between the past and present act as the source of their power.

O’Neil’s introductory chapter explores themes of engagement, interactivity, and the reuse of sculpture. She situates the site’s monuments within the highly developed Late Classic sculptural traditions that flourished in the Usumacinta region, where carvings were important enough to be mentioned in texts, assigned names, and/or signed by carvers. She helps readers envision the locations where spectators encountered monuments and sets up frameworks for understanding how kinetic experiences, such as viewing, circumambulation, wrapping, and unwrapping, generated ch’ulel, or life force, which activated monuments, propelled narratives, and generated encounters with divine ancestors.

In chapters 1 and 2, O’Neil shows that sculptures operated in terms of both their physical forms and the information they communicated via the images and texts carved into their surfaces. Viewers literate in iconography and/or hieroglyphic texts were compelled to go beyond physical interaction with sculpted monuments to connect with spiritual or historical content, the memories of which were oftentimes linked. Artists strategically considered a monument’s form and size, the location of surface carvings, colors, and physical location to encourage audiences to physically situate themselves in relation to artworks. She ultimately locates the meanings of sculptures within the intersection of the messages expressed by images and texts, the monument’s form, and the ways in which they could be mobilized through ceremonial activity.

In chapters 3 and 4 and the epilogue, O’Neil discusses the longer social life of specific sculpted objects, including their deinstallation, reinstallation, and modification; in short, she considers the gradual accretion of histories and identities sculptures assume as a result of their experiences. The presence of multiple monuments in one area created opportunities to establish relationships between sculptures. Their placement and orientation fashioned scenarios where they could align, face, or oppose each other, while their individual images and texts could visually or conceptually link narratives. O’Neil argues that such narrative development propelled spectators to come into physical contact within sculptural groups during performances. In her case study of Structure O-13 (chapter 4), the author shows how the relocation of existing monuments, the creation of new sculptures, and ritual activities allowed K’inch Yat Ahk II to refashion the past and conjure ancestors into the present. The volume’s epilogue is noteworthy because it expands the discussion of ancient monuments into territory not typically covered by scholarly volumes on ancient Maya art. O’Neil considers the modern histories of some monuments from the nineteenth century to the present day and traces the paths that sculptures took after their removal from Maya sites.

In the end, O’Neil demonstrates how careful consideration of monuments’ formal qualities, combined with an examination of textual and archaeological information, can be a powerful tool in refining our understanding of how ancient sculptures and buildings operated. To her credit, she asserts the importance of color on sculpted works, a consideration that is often ignored or forgotten since, in many cases, it can only be seen in traces if at all. The author’s incorporation of photographs and line drawings are useful in helping readers identify the textual and iconographic details that support her arguments. O’Neil’s model certainly provokes much thought; however, some aspects of the built environment, such as monument reuse and the exact modes of human-object interaction, are often difficult to reconstruct with certainty.

In Space and Sculpture in the Classic Maya City, Parmington employs a combination of access analysis—a system for analyzing relationships between spaces within buildings—and thematic image analysis to gain insight into the messages expressed by monuments from Palenque. The author shows how access analysis can help identify changes in the themes represented in artworks and how themes are linked to an artwork’s degree of accessibility. He argues that the type of art chosen relates directly to the public or private nature of the associated space. Parmington uses chapters 1 and 2 to establish the methodological foundations for the study of monuments in space. He describes cognitive, social, and physical frameworks for thinking about how people experience and understand their surroundings, and he articulates a spectrum of privacy in relation to social status, such that private (elite) spaces are more restricted (segregated) and public spaces are more accessible, as determined by an analysis of the arrangement of spaces in relation to each other and in relation to how entrances and passageways permit movement. Parmington then categorizes monumental sculpture based on the themes suggested by its subject matter. Correlating an artwork’s theme with its location of display allows him to speculate about its degree of accessibility and resultant audience.

In chapter 3, Parmington applies access analysis to Palenque’s Cross Group, a triad of temples commissioned by K’inich Kan B’alam II. The results of Parmington’s analysis indicate that monuments with restricted viewership could show the king in humility while semipublic locations necessarily displayed royal portraits of kings in roles and regalia signaling greater authority, as well as the requisite deities and historical texts. While the author successfully demonstrates the correlation between the degree of privacy and the image theme, I question his identification of the figures represented on the panels. (Julia Guernsey has also questioned Parmington’s identification of Cross Group Tablets; see Julia Guernsey, “Review of Space and Sculpture in the Classic Maya City, by Alexander Parmington, 2011,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22, no. 1 (2012): 141–43.) He asserts that the small figure pictured on the Tablet of the Cross is K’inch Kan B’alam II and the taller figure is K’inch Janab’ Pakal I (54). On the Tablets of the Sun and Foliated Cross he suggests that the shorter individual is either Pakal or K’inich Kan B’alam II. Updated readings of the texts and iconography indicate that the shorter of the two individuals is K’inch Kan B’alam II shown as a youth. Merging portraits of the same person at different ages in a single composition, the panels celebrate the young king’s designation as heir and his role as an adult warrior while also documenting ritual performances.

In chapters 4 and 5, Parmington analyzes the Palace Group. Because the Palace as it exists today is the result of centuries of accretion, the author breaks down its construction into six phases. This approach allows him to trace the progression of the group’s architectural and sculptural development and pinpoint the contributions of individual kings. Parmington concludes that during the earlier phases of the Palace Group’s construction, a strong correlation exists between sculptural themes and the degree of accessibility of the spaces in which artworks were displayed. Changes in the distribution of themes expressed by artworks suggest that monuments addressed different audiences at different moments in the Palace’s history. Furthermore, he shows that the importance of monumental sculpture diminished over time.

Parmington acknowledges some of the pitfalls involved with his approach. He points out the danger of allowing subjectivity to factor into the categorization of themes and concedes that his methodology requires accurate architectural plans and precise knowledge of the original locations of artworks. Looted, destroyed, or relocated monuments compromise the integrity of the findings. Despite the author’s words of caution, one still wonders about the embellishments that are now lost. How might ephemeral artworks factor into this picture? Holes to support curtain rods, for example, suggest not only the desire for privacy, and thus the further restriction of space (as the author astutely observes), but may also prompt us to ask what messages woven textiles encoded and communicated.

One of this volume’s strengths is its ability to serve as a model for the application of access analysis, and it should prove of interest to those investigating other built environments. Parmington’s focus on teasing apart temporal layers of architectural complexes in order to gain a more accurate understanding of how design guided or restricted access to particular categories of imagery at discrete moments in time serves as a reminder for scholars to question how we interrogate reconsolidated buildings, reconstruction drawings, and plans. Parmington’s detailed descriptions of monuments combined with tables, diagrams, and photographs guide readers through data-rich sections and make this book an important resource for scholars interested in Palenque. While the author clearly articulates that his treatment of artworks is aimed at the task of thematic classifications, it is tempting to undertake a full reappraisal of his findings in relation to some of the approaches employed by O’Neil.

O’Neil and Parmington each take the reader several steps closer to comprehending the phenomenon of encountering Maya monuments. They employ innovative approaches that help readers better imagine how Late Classic viewers experienced and interacted with sculpture and architecture, and how artworks operated within ancient environments. These volumes serve as important contributions to our understanding of the artistic programs of Piedras Negras and Palenque, respectively, and both should be considered essential reading for specialists of Maya studies. The authors’ rich descriptions of artworks in context undoubtedly hold broad appeal as well for readers curious about what it was like to experience artworks in the ancient past.

Kaylee R. Spencer
Associate Professor, Art Department, University of Wisconsin–River Falls