On a recent trip to Austin, I visited the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, where I made a point of viewing two of Luis Jimenez’s magnificent sculptures. Early in his career, Jimenez (1940-2006) decided to address political and social issues in his art. That way he could encourage conversation, a word the artist claimed to prefer over controversy. The El Paso native also said that people didn’t have to agree with him, but he wanted viewers to hear what he had to say.
Without uttering a word, Border Crossing, a ten-and-a-half-foot polychrome fiber glass sculpture, makes a very bold statement. The piece depicts a single-minded man, head down, wife and child on his back, sloshing across the Rio Grande, one foot at a time, until they reach the other side, where they’ll find a better life. To achieve their dreams, the family will endure a hard struggle.
Given the heated rhetoric in the current election campaigns, this piece is indeed profound. For Jimenez, the message was personal. His father entered the U.S. illegally at the age of nine. He became a naturalized citizen. “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 said during an interview with David Turner, a former director of the New Mexico Museum of Art. That interview was published in Voices in New Mexico Art.
The other piece, Progress Two, is also intense. This piece, which takes up nearly an entire room near the Blanton’s exhibit of more conventional Western art, depicts a vaquero rounding up a longhorn. Throughout his career, Jimenez’s has been criticized for busting what he described as myths. He believed the American cowboy was a Mexican invention, for example. In this particular piece, which will be moved to the Dell Medical Center at the University of Texas, the horse and the bull appear demonic because of their red eyes. The eyes also leave no doubt that the struggle between man and beast is fierce.
At the base of the fiberglass sculpture Jimenez has crafted an owl grabbing a rabbit and a pair of rodents sitting next to a skull. The figures add to what appears to be the artist’s theme: Settling the American West, was a hard struggle, a life and death matter for many.
Jimenez’s art, which is on display in the other locales, including the Smithsonian, is definitely worth a look. The use of fiberglass and automotive paint is fascinating. Moreover, the intensity of his work - called an epiphany by some, an outrage by others, and a national treasure by former President Bill Clinton – is a worthwhile experience. As the artist himself stated: You don’t have to like it: Just hear me out. Luis Jimenez does have something to say
The sculpture Border Crossing can also be seen at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe in the museum’s West Sculpture Garden.