THE SEVENTIES HAD JUST BEGUN, and El Paso native Luis Jimenez had already realized the dream of every Texas artist of his generation: making it in New York. Arriving there in 1966 with a stubbornly contrarian aesthetic—outspoken, neon-hued figurative sculpture in an era of mute minimalist abstraction—this UT-educated son of an illegal immigrant had hustled his way into a couple of critically praised one-man shows at a prominent New York gallery, doing well enough to quit his day job and buy a house in Maine. But in 1972, in a turnabout seemingly as improbable as his success, Jimenez came home.
“I realized I was reaching what I thought was a very limited audience—the gallery and museum world,” recalls Jimenez, who is 58. “It’s not like having the work out in public. And I wanted to move out in public.” Working in a hangarlike studio in a former Works Progress Administration schoolhouse near Hondo, New Mexico (about three hours north of El Paso), Jimenez has done just that, moving his art into the public arena with an ambition and audacity unmatched by any American artist in the past two decades. From El Paso’s San Jacinto Plaza to a California border crossing to the main street of Fargo, North Dakota, Jimenez’s high-gloss, urethane-coated fiberglass monuments have challenged his audiences to take a fresh look at their history and myths.
For a public that has progressed from classical bronzes of all-American icons to steel-and-marble corporate minimalism with little more than a yawn, a Jimenez can be an epiphany or, at times, an outrage. Adapted with equal enthusiasm from both high and popular art, Jimenez’s figures combine the classical lines and rapturous Baroque energy of a Bernini with the pneumatic surrealism of Mexican calendar art—a potent mix derived from his own cultural hybridism.
“I never lost contact with the culture of Mexico,” Jimenez says. “I remember when I was six years old spending a whole summer in Mexico City, going to the museums, seeing not only the work of the Mexican muralists but shows by artists like Henry Moore. I was exposed to a level of art that I never was in El Paso.” But equally important was the culture in and around his father’s custom neon-sign shop in El Paso’s tough Segundo Barrio, where the lowriders cruised by while Jimenez helped assemble giant sheet-metal roosters and concrete-and-wire-mesh polar bears. As a teenager, Jimenez spray-painted hot rods in the shop after work, perfecting the automotive sheen he would later apply to his innovative fiberglass casts: “I decided that if my images were going to be taken from popular culture, I wanted a material that didn’t carry the cultural baggage of marble or bronze.”
But even more than the medium, it’s the message that distinguishes Jimenez from his colleagues. At a time when most public art merely whispers carefully edited platitudes, Jimenez believes that his work should sound off. “The purpose of public art is to create a ‘dialogue,’” he says. “I like that word better than ‘controversy.’” And “dialogue” has indeed attended every Jimenez installation since his first public commission, Vaquero, was placed in Houston’s Moody Park in 1981. Initially rejected for a site near city hall, the gunslinging Hispanic broncbuster was promptly attacked by a local Hispanic politician for allegedly inciting violence. Jimenez’s intention, however, was to correct a historical oversight. “I wanted to do a cowboy for Texas,” he explains, “and it’s a historical fact that the American cowboy was a Mexican invention.” It’s also a fact that many in the West are still unable to accept; the commission for Progress II, a cow-roping vaquero planned for the gallery district in Scottsdale, Arizona, was shot down after concerted lobbying by the city’s traditional Western art galleries.
But Jimenez’s revisionist history of the American West isn’t as simple as putting brown faces on the usual suspects. Sodbuster, San Isidro, on view at the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas, casts the humble prairie plowman in the same heroic mold as Remington’s cowpunchers and cavalrymen. An even more heretical challenge to the accepted canons of Western art is Jimenez’s portrayal of nature as an often-suffering protagonist rather than the malign adversary of Anglo-American progress. His buffalo, coyotes, alligators, and wild horses (the 32-foot-tall Denver Mustang taking shape in his studio will rear up next to the main terminal of the new Denver International Airport) eulogize a vanishing natural world while conjuring the powerful animistic spirits once worshiped by Native Americans. “I looked at a lot of art made in the American West when I started out,” says Jimenez, “and it seemed our whole idea of progress was wrapped up in the notion of the killing of the beast. In all its variations, it has become a trite, hackneyed image.”
The artist offers an equally provocative take on the new West. A citizen of the border (Luis Senior crossed illegally at age nine and was naturalized sixteen years later), Jimenez alludes to his own history in the impassioned Border Crossing (at Santa Fe’s Museum of Fine Arts), which depicts a Mexican father carrying his family across the river on his shoulders: “I wanted to put a face on these people.” His drawing of Esequiel Hernandez, Jr., the Redford teenager mistakenly shot dead by a Marine on border patrol (Jimenez depicts the youthful goatherd as a Christ-like shepherd), provoked a civil liberties showdown when the principal of a Presidio school ordered a teacher to remove a poster version—produced by the Border Rights Coalition, an immigrant advocacy organization—from her classroom; the poster came down. Fiesta (Jarabe), a pair of jarabe dancers installed at the San Diego International Crossing, drew its complaints from feminists who found the woman too wanton and from middle-class Hispanics who objected that her partner was too dark and paunchy. “These are ordinary people,” Jimenez says of his working-class duo. “It’s not some sort of idealized stereotype.”
As unconcerned with the mandarin political correctness of today’s art as he was with the social unconsciousness of his peers thirty years ago, Jimenez simply goes on showing us the true faces of the West—and rewriting nineteenth-century Western mythology for a twenty-first-century audience. “In redefining the myth we’re really redefining ourselves,” he says. “And I think it’s important to keep redefining ourselves. That’s something that artists have always done.”