A lot changed in the New World between 1492 and 1979. Indeed, it’s hard to think of much that didn’t change, except, perhaps, in gross geological terms — which makes it difficult to grasp the vast historical breadth LACMA’s exhibition calendar encompasses this fall, with “The Arts in Latin America: 1492–1820” on one side of the courtyard and “SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and ’70s From LACMA’s Collection” on the other. It’s heartening, however, to see the museum daring to pose such a challenge, and in terms that actually respect the intelligence of its audience (not to mention its works), with nary a foam-core photomontage or snazzy informational touchscreen in sight. Despite a few nagging irritations — it wouldn’t have killed the museum, as others have noted, to include Spanish-language wall texts — these are straightforward, high-minded, refreshingly challenging exhibitions that come as a reminder, among other things, of just what we need the largest encyclopedic museum west of the Mississippi for: to sort through the messy aftermath of history and help to unravel the question not only of who we are but what a term like “we” could possibly mean in the context of our dizzyingly heterogeneous city (/state/nation/hemisphere).

Among the many peculiar treasures in the Latin American show is a series of works known as casta paintings: domestic scenes depicting multiracial families in various, systematized equations (Spaniard + Indian, mestizo + black, black + Indian, Spaniard + mulatto, etc.). Developed in the late 18th century in the region known as New Spain (Mexico and Central America), the genre reflects an aspect of colonialism generally overshadowed by its spectacular violence: the profound social and cultural complexity precipitated by the entanglement of individual lives, and the challenge this complexity posed to prevailing notions of order, virtue and power. The paintings speak to a sort of confusion — a desire to get a handle on just what this new society is going to look like — but with none of the panic and paranoia that tend to characterize later Anglo-American depictions of cultural difference. In fact, they’re kind of sweet, filled with flirting glances and tender parental caresses.

Appearing in the first gallery of this prodigious exhibition, the casta paintings provide a poignant access point: None but the most sheltered Angeleno could fail to recognize both the joys and the anxieties of the reality they foretell. Los Angeles is the last point in the show’s transcontinental tour, after Philadelphia and Mexico City, and while each of these places bears the stamp of colonial history, L.A. may be the most resonant fit: a city perched on the far edge of the New World, born of Spanish conquest but an emblem now of the equally momentous cultural reshuffling of globalism.

With its 300-year time span, its 250 objects and its 7½-pound, 17-essay catalog, “The Arts in Latin America” is the sort of show that strikes a contemporary art critic (or at least this contemporary art critic) with a certain degree of humility. Rather than feign any sort of comprehensive grasp of the subject — there are experts aplenty in the catalog and on the museum’s scheduled roster of programs; please do consult them — I offer my own (albeit partial) observations in the spirit of an inquisitive and rather dazzled layman. Broad as the sweep of the exhibition may be, a few characteristics stand out:

1. Lots of saints. The mission of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism was inseparable from the mission of the Catholic Church — only a fraction of the works assembled here are secular — and the figure of the saint appears to have been an especially useful tool, offering an element of human-scale drama likely to appeal to potential converts, while also, one presumes, providing a psychological context for believers who may have felt themselves adrift in a heathen’s world, waging God’s war on the outlying reaches of his empire.

2. Lots of blood. Two monks being beaten and decapitated by Indians; St. Sebastian riddled with arrows; a literally flayed St. Bartholomew (this, alas, only in the catalog); and, of course, Jesus himself, inflicted not discreetly or politely, with a trickling wound here and there, as in most European depictions, but downright battered: limbs tied, flesh torn, blood, in many cases, virtually gushing. Indeed, nowhere in these works is the violence of the colonial enterprise more vivid, ironically, than in the agonized body of its Christ.

3. Lots of gold. And silver. And gems, and inlay, and wood carvings, and rippling fabrics, and elaborate embroidery, and an endless variety of sumptuous patterns. Just about any figure who happens to be clothed — which is to say, any figure besides Jesus, the unfortunate Bartholomew and a few of the more ascetic saints — is dazzlingly arrayed, with the Virgin Mary by far the grandest beneficiary. If God commanded one horse on the chariot of colonialism, Mammon drove the other, and there isn’t an object on display that isn’t reveling in its own objectness, brandishing its luxurious physicality for all the world to see.

This lavish parade of God and gold would seem to have little in common with the art of Southern California in the 1960s and ’70s, but this last point — the ardent physicality of the work — makes for an interesting bridge. If there is any one theme pervading this latter era, it is a fascination/obsession with materials. For assemblage artists like Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, George Herms, John Outterbridge and Betye Saar, this meant the beer bottles, chicken wire, scraps of wood, bits of fabric, and other discarded relics of a consumer economy. For the Finish Fetishists — Peter Alexander, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman — it meant the synthetic resins and enamels of the aerospace and automotive industries; and for the Light and Space folks — Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, James Turrell — it was the impalpable effects of light and color.

Despite an uncomfortably crowded installation in a wing of the museum that may just be a lost cause — I can’t think of a show that’s actually looked good in the Hammer Building, with its tall, black, paneled ceiling and that dreadful carpet — “SoCal” is a satisfying sampler of a pivotal era in L.A.’s artistic ascendancy, packed with memorable works that just about stand up to the shoulder jostling: an ethereal projection/installation by Turrell; several powerful landscape(-ish) paintings by Lynn Foulkes; and a massive canvas by Norman Zammitt involving a sunriselike gradation of soft, sweet color, to name a few.

One of the most emblematic — and beautiful — is an untitled piece by Robert Irwin: a white disk, 60 inches in diameter, suspended a few feet in front of the wall, with lights positioned in such a way as to cast a hem of shadows around its perimeter, giving it the effect of an eerily hovering mandala. Accompanying wall text quotes Irwin explaining his motivation: “The question for the disks was very simple,” he says. “How do I paint a painting that does not begin and end at the edge but rather starts to take in and become involved with the space or environment around it?”

It struck me because it hit so closely on a thought that was nagging me throughout the Latin American show, which was itself a model of clean, formal, traditional museum installation, with each object carefully preserved and properly encased. Pleasing as the individual magnificence of each of these objects is, I found myself craving visual context, wanting to see into the space that would have originally surrounded them — into the negative space, one might say, of history. Would the walls have been stucco or brick? Would it have been light or dark, warm or cool? Would there have been smoke drifting by? Priests? Servants with platters?

On the one hand, these were objects intended to distinguish themselves (and their owners) from the confusion of their surroundings, and to assert a sort of command over that confusion: to establish the sovereignty, that is, of the colonial establishment. They are, for the most part, heavily, lavishly, strenuously framed — whether in actual picture frames, in altarpieces, in the architecture of cathedrals, or in the homes of the very wealthy. On the other hand, as this show very frequently makes clear, these frames are themselves permeable: Indigenous iconography floats in and out of the imagery; styles develop within particular communities that distinguish them from those of the Old World; local concerns creep in around the royal and religious symbolism.

Is there any work, ultimately, that is not “involved in the space and environment around it”? “The Arts in Latin America” suggests not.

THE ARTS IN LATIN AMERICA: 1492–1820 and SOCAL: Southern California Art of the 1960s and ’70s From LACMA’s Collection | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | (323) 857-6000 | Through Oct. 28 and March 30, respectively

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.