Inside Luis Jiménez’s American Southwest

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AUSTIN, Texas – With feet and tail flying in the air, an Electric Blue Mustang ridden by a cowboy dives towards a longhorn as it leaps over our heads. The hooves of the two animals meet on a small patch of land where insects and small animals crawl. A nearby skull resting on a spear commemorates the Native Americans displaced by Anglo invaders, and a barbed wire fence signals our proximity to the US-Mexico border. This huge, captivating sculpture “Progress II” (1976/1999) by Luis Jiménez amazes us with its forms that defy gravity and its sparkling colors. But it also contains moving 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 in 1940 in El Paso, Texas to an immigrant family, the artist grew up in a world dominated by cowboys, cacti, and rattlesnakes, all of which later appeared in his drawings, prints, and fiberglass sculptures. Apart from a brief period in which he lived in New York City in the late 1960s, Jiménez spent his career in the southwestern United States. Fifteen years after the artist’s tragic death in an accident at his studio in Hondo, New Mexico, Border Vision: Luis Jiménez ‘Southwest at the Blanton Museum of Art examines the crucial role this often marginalized and misunderstood location played in his artwork.

Installation view of Border Vision: Luis Jiménez’s Southwest, Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin

Jiménez grew up in a strictly Protestant household. Excluded from parties and other social engagements, the young artist spent the time drawing the native animals and insects from the hills near his family’s home. From the age of six, he also worked in his father’s electrical sign workshop, where he learned about some of the industrial materials, bold colors, and accents of light that would appear in his later works of art. As a teenager, Jiménez wasn’t allowed to date or take part in dances, so he taught himself to restore classic cars with fiberglass. This material became Jiménez’s unlikely choice for his visual arts and a connection to his roots.

Mexican immigrants, rabbits, and firefighters all appear in Jiménez’s fiberglass sculptures. “If my pictures were to come from popular culture, I wanted a material that didn’t carry the cultural baggage of marble or bronze,” said Jiménez. But despite his unorthodox material and subjects, he was deeply invested in some aspects of Western art tradition. After initially studying architecture, he switched to the fine arts in the final year of his studies. “Most teachers at the time focused on Abstract Expressionism,” said curator Florencia Bazzano of Hyperallergic on a recent tour of the exhibition. “He wanted to do figuration, so he went against the current.”

Luis Jiménez, “Cholo and Van with Popo and Ixta” (1997), lithograph, 27 x 39 inches (Collection of Gilberto Cárdenas, Austin © Luis Jiménez / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Jiménez’s careful attention to human muscles, movement, and balance is indeed reminiscent of the work of Rodin and Greek sculpture, and he was also a master draftsman. Dynamic drawings and prints document Jiménez’s uncanny ability to capture the figure in motion, but they also document his commitment to representing his community on their own terms. Jiménez ‘1997 lithograph “Cholo and Van with Popo and Ixta” connects the worlds of everyday people with ancient myths. The van, driven by a man with a snake tattoo, features a mural depicting star-crossed lovers Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, an iconic couple that appears on 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), and shows Jiménez’s close connection to his sense of the Mortality and the culture of his ancestors.

“His approach to art is clearly shaped by a rasquache or underdog aesthetic,” Bazzano told Hyperallergic. “He looked at normal working class people and aspects of their lives.” Jiménez’s unique blend of pop, Chicano and classical art presents a critical, colorful and human view of the Southwest that is relevant to this day.

Luis Jiménez, “Dance with the Talaca [Dance with Death]“(1984), lithograph sheet, 39 1/8 x 26 7/8 in., Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin (Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1985 © Luis Jiménez / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York )

Luis Jiménez, “Progress Suite” (1979), lithograph, 23 1/2 x 35 inches (Collection by Irene Branson, Austin, © Luis Jiménez / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Installation view of Border Vision: Luis Jiménez’s Southwest, Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin

Border Vision: Luis Jiménez ‘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.

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Inside Luis Jiménez’s American Southwest