Busted Myths and Conversations : The Art of Luis Jimenez - 7/1/2015

Border Crossing, 1989
Luis A. Jiménez Jr., American, 1940 - 2006
Polychrome fiberglass
Overall: 128 x 40 x 55 in.
Other (Pedestal): 22 x 52 x 65 cm (8 11/16 x 20 1/2 x 25 9/16 in.)
Museum purchase with funds from the Los Trigos Fund, Herzstein Family Acquisition Endowment, Friends of Contemporary Art, Margot and Robert Linton and Rosina Yue Smith, 1994
 
One day last year after I finished a docent tour, a young Hispanic couple, visiting from Los Angeles, came to the museum determined to see Border Crossing, Luis Jimenez’s iconic sculpture. The Californians, both in their late twenties, spent nearly an hour in the West Sculpture Garden seated at the base of the ten- and- a- half foot polychrome fiber glass sculpture, where they experienced the compelling intensity of Jimenez’s art, called an epiphany by some, an outrage by others, and a national treasure by President Bill Clinton.
 
Border Crossing depicts a single-minded man, head down, wife and child on his back, sloshing his way, one foot at a time, across the Rio Grande. On the other side: a better life for himself and his family.
 
A few weeks ago, while taking pictures in the sculpture garden for another project, another Hispanic couple, out-of-towners, also, entered the garden, their faces bright. “There’s Luiz Jimenez,” the man called to his wife. Camera in hand, the couple rushed to the brightly colored sculpture. They gazed up at the giant figure that looks as if it stepped out of an outdoor mural, dressed for a low-rider parade through Espanola. Jimenez has never been shy about using bold colors to celebrate his roots or express what he feels or thinks. Early in his career, he decided to address political and social issues in his art.
 
If Luis Jimenez (1940-2006) were alive, he would be pleased with the reaction of the visitors who experienced his work in the garden of the New Mexico Museum of Art. In an interview with David Turner, a former director of the museum, published in Voices in New Mexico Art, Jimenez said: “Public art is very important to me. I like the notion of art being appreciated by people who don’t necessarily own it.” He added. “I want to create a popular art that ordinary people can relate to, as well as people who have degrees in art.”
 
Jimenez went on to say that you don’t have to agree with him, but he wants viewers to hear what he has to say. His art, a blend of Chicano themes and Western history, is intended to create what Jimenez describes as a conversation. “The purpose of public art is to create a dialogue,” he said. “I like that word better than controversy.” Throughout his career, that dialogue has often been heated because Jimenez often busted what he considered myths.
 
In 1981, for example, the dialogue surrounding a commission from the City of Houston became deafening. The piece, called Vaquero, depicted a gun slinging Hispanic broncobuster. Vaquero was rejected for a site near City Hall in downtown Houston and moved to a nearby park in a primarily Hispanic neighborhood. Once there, a Hispanic politician objected, saying the sculpture incited violence. Vaquero was waving a gun.
 
Jimenez’s explanation: “I wanted to do a cowboy for Texas, and it’s a historical fact that the American cowboy was a Mexican invention.” A cast of Vaquero has been installed on the steps of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the nation’s capital. Yes, this Vaquero is armed as well.
 
Texans aren’t the only ones sensitive about points of view and American history. A cow-roping vaquero planned for the gallery district in Scottsdale, Arizona never came to be because of lobbying efforts made by that cities traditional Western art galleries.
 
Closer to home, a Jimenez piece entitled Southwest Pieta created an outcry in Albuquerque in 1983. Originally planned for Old Town, its detractors claimed it was too Mexican. In the Turner interview, Jimenez said that the original New Mexico settlers, who once called themselves Mexicans, began to refer to themselves as Spanish for a reason. “After the (Mexican) revolution of 1910, mainly in the twenties, you had a huge influx of poor Mexicans that immigrated north from Mexico.” Jimenez explained that in Southwest Pieta he wanted to call attention to that issue: Spanish versus Mexican. He argued that both groups shared a similar culture. The divisive attitude harmed the entire Hispanic community in New Mexico. The original Old Town location was nixed, but Southwest Pieta was eventually installed in another neighborhood in central Albuquerque.
 
For Jimenez, Border Crossing is personal. His father entered the U.S. illegally at the age of nine. Luis Senior became a naturalized citizen sixteen years later. “I had wanted to do a piece dealing with the issue of the illegal alien. People talked about the aliens as if they landed from outer space, as if they weren’t really people. I wanted to put a face on them. I wanted to humanize them.”
 
Jimenez’s family came from Mexico. He was born in El Paso. He worked for his dad, who owned an electric sign shop in El Paso’s tough Segundo Barrio, where Jimenez gained experience in spray painting, welding, bending neon and bright colors. After hours, Jimenez spray painted hot- rods in his dad’s shop. He attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied fine arts and architecture. Afterward, he headed to New York.
 
In an era of whispered minimalist abstraction, Jimenez, the son of an illegal immigrant and proud of his Mexican roots, found representation for his neon-colored figurative sculpture at a New York gallery. After a couple of successful one-man shows, Jimenez quit his day job and even bought a home in Maine. Some critics believe his innovative fiberglass sculpture contributed to the rise of Pop Art.
 
Jimenez returned to the Southwest. At the time of his death, he was living in Hondo, New Mexico. He died in 2006 when a portion of the 32-foot Blue Mustang, now installed at the Denver International Airport, fell and severed his femoral artery. Crafting the sculpture, which symbolizes the wild spirit of the American West, proved difficult for Jimenez, who reportedly told an associate that the horse would be the death of him. The 9,000 pound sculpture was installed two years after Jimenez’s death.
 
Again, as Jimenez intended, his art sparked a heated dialogue that often sounded like the screenplay of an old Hollywood “B” western. Petitions were circulated demanding that the demonic blue horse with flashing red eyes and an ugly face, on its hind legs rearing in rage, be removed. It’s possessed some said. Others pointed out that Mustang was murderous. After all, the piece had killed its creator. Some even renamed the sculpture "Blucifer."
 
Jimenez might consider these remarks and criticisms metaphorical. True or False: The American West was settled without violence.
 
By the time he died, Jimenez’s art had been featured or installed in countless museums and universities. Some forty cities have commissioned his work. During his career, Jimenez also taught art at the University of Arizona and the University of Houston.
 
In looking back at everything Jimenez accomplished as an artist and an American, which is how he viewed himself, Border Crossing represents something greater to the nation as a whole. The sculpture symbolizes the American experience, a mosaic of blended cultures, working together, learning from one another, striving to reach a better life.
 
As Jimenez explained: “I always find it very fascinating to see cultures mix, because I grew up on the border where there was this constant mix all the time.” We are, as President John Kennedy put it, a nation of immigrants, a mix.
 
New Mexico, home to countless artists, is taking a major step to honor Luis Jimenez. After adding Jimenez’s home and studio to the list of significant cultural properties in New Mexico, the state requested that U.S. officials add the sites to the National Register of Historic Places. A decision is expected sometime this year.
 
To see Border Crossing and the other sculptures in the West Sculpture Garden, enter the St. Francis Auditorium off the museum lobby. On the other side of the auditorium, visitors will find a door that leads outside to the garden. Stay awhile. There’s a lot to see.
 

 

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