AUSTIN, Texas — With its feet and tail flying in the air, an electric blue mustang mounted by a cowboy dives towards a longhorn leaping above our heads. The two animals’ hooves meet on a small patch of land where insects and small animals crawl. A nearby skull resting against a spear is a reminder of the Native Americans who were forced out by Anglo invaders, and a barbed wire fence signals our proximity to the US-Mexico border. This enormous, engaging sculpture, “Progress II” (1976/1999) by Luis Jiménez, stuns us with its gravity-defying shapes and flashing colors. But it also contains poignant messages about the complex history, culture, and landscape of the artist’s homeland.
The American Southwest was at the center of Jiménez’s life and work. Born to an immigrant family in El Paso, Texas in 1940, the artist grew up in a world dominated by cowboys, cactus, and rattlesnakes, all of which later appeared in his drawings, prints, and fiberglass sculptures. Aside from a brief period when he lived in New York City in the late 1960s, Jiménez spent his career working in the Southwestern region of the United States. Fifteen years after the artist’s tragic death in an accident at his Hondo, New Mexico studio, Border Vision: Luis Jiménez’s Southwest at the Blanton Museum of Art explores the crucial role that this often marginalized and misunderstood place played in his artwork.
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Jiménez grew up in a strict Protestant household. Barred from parties and other social engagements, the young artist passed the time drawing the local animals and insects from the hills near his family’s home. He also worked in his father’s electric sign shop from the age of six, where he was introduced to some of the industrial materials, bold colors, and lighting accents that appeared in his later artwork. As a teenager, Jiménez wasn’t permitted to date or attend dances, so he taught himself to restore classic cars with fiberglass. This material became Jiménez’s unlikely choice for his fine art, and a connection to his roots.
Mexican immigrants, jackrabbits, and firemen all appear in Jiménez’s fiberglass sculptures. “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,” Jiménez said. But despite his unorthodox material and subjects, he was deeply invested in some aspects of the Western art tradition. After initially studying architecture, he switched to fine art in his final year of college. “Most teachers were focused on Abstract Expressionism at the time,” curator Florencia Bazzano told Hyperallergic on a recent tour of the exhibition. “He wanted to do figuration, so he was going against the grain.”
Indeed, Jiménez’s careful attention to human musculature, movement, and balance recalls the work of Rodin and Greek sculpture, and he was also a master draftsman. Dynamic drawings and prints record Jiménez’s uncanny ability to capture the figure in motion, but they also register his commitment to representing his community on its own terms. Jiménez’s 1997 lithograph “Cholo and Van with Popo and Ixta” fuses the worlds of everyday people with ancient myths. The van, driven by a man with a snake tattoo, displays a mural depicting the star-crossed lovers Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, an iconic pair that appears in countless Mexican calendars and restaurant walls. In another lithograph, “Baile con la Talaca (Dance with Death)” (1984), the artist shows himself dancing with the Mexican embodiment of death, La Talaca (or Calaca), showing Jiménez’s close connection to his sense of mortality and ancestral culture.
“His approach to art is distinctly shaped by a rasquache or underdog aesthetic,” Bazzano told Hyperallergic. “He was looking at regular, working class people and aspects of their lives.” Jiménez’s unique blend of Pop, Chicano, and classical art presents a critical, colorful, and humane view of the Southwest that continues to be relevant today.
Border Vision: Luis Jiménez’s Southwest continues at the Blanton Museum of Art (200 East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Austin) through January 16, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Florencia Bazzano.