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Spirit of Texas

Luis Jimenez approaches the intangible by depicting the flesh

Steelworker stands more than 12 feet tall and holds his testing ladle beside him the way a sentry holds his gun. The helmeted worker, located a short spring from the University of Houston's art department, is Luis Jimenez's fiberglass homage to the immigrant population who built the milling industry. But the features of this everyman are those of a minority -- perhaps a Chicano, an African-American or a Pole. As critic Michael Brenson points out, the worker is much more than a loyal servant. The position of his body, with its weight shifting from back to front leg, suggests the idealized beauty of Greek art. With his heavily wrinkled overcoat, rumpled blue pants and enormous black boots, the steelmaker is also a man of introspection, displaying a seriousness that is usually a sign of experience and wisdom. A beacon of sorts, this noble, solitary figure not only warns of a depressed and endangered industry, but celebrates humanity and honest labor. What's more, the sculpture seemingly beckons passersby to enter Luis Jimenez's "Working-Class Heroes: Images from the Popular Culture," a retrospective spanning three decades of work that fills Blaffer Gallery with prints, drawings, maquettes and monumental fiberglass sculpture by the El Paso native.

As a group, the sculptures exude a powerful theatricality, rich with metaphorical layers. But your first impression is of color and energy. The fiberglass figures radiate beautiful "jukebox" colors: screechy yellows, electric blues, boudoir pinks. The shades are viciously intense, as snazzy as automotive gloss.

Every cow, ox, eagle, horse, cowboy, farmer and dancer is bursting with energy; everything is fueled to the max. The first gallery fairly pulsates with the blinking electric lights of The End of the Trail (1971), an updated version of the familiar Western image in which a lone Indian rides his last miles against a setting sun. Move to the right of this sculpture, and you bump nose to nose with the pair of giant purple oxen straining against the farmer's plow in Sodbuster (1981). Turning away from the beasts, you ricochet into a flurry of skintight flamenco flounces worn by a sensual woman dancing the jarabe with her caballero partner. A few steps beyond the dancers, your neck cranes to see the totemic Border Crossing, a ten-and-a-half-foot rendering of a man carrying a family on his back.

Looming straight ahead is the hulking figure of an Indian warrior who mourns the loss of his lover. Southwest Pietà (1984) is a takeoff on the common Mexican calendar image depicting an Aztec legend; it holds that the volcanoes outside Mexico City were warmed when a warrior took his wife to the mountains and held her as they died together. In Jimenez's work, the woman's hair cascades down her husband's lap like molten lava. Spiky shoots of maguey and nopal cactus project from one side of the sculpture. From the other, an oversized eagle's beak directs your passage into a far gallery.

Curated by Benito Huerta, the show is significant on several counts. It's the artist's first touring retrospective and the first exhibition by a full professor in UH's art department since Gael Stack had a show at the Blaffer a decade ago. More important, "Working Class Heroes" provides an opportunity to see Jimenez's range and magnitude, his largeness of spirit and seriousness, even his melancholy. The Jimenez who emerges is often different from the artist we think we know. Though firmly committed to the creation of what he calls a "publicly accessible American art," he aims to present an alternative view of our cultural icons. His reinterpretations of history and legends contain all the contradictions and truths of real life. Indeed, among the many strengths of Jimenez's works is their subtle, almost subversive appearance of accommodation. It's the reason why his sculpture has the capacity to speak to just about anyone, anywhere.

Still, the artist has drawn much attention -- and sometimes fire -- for his fiberglass public sculptures. In many of his public works, the traditional, straightforward interpretation can be deceptive. Take Fiesta Dancers (Jarabe): On the surface, the work seems innocent in its portrayal of two hat dancers. On a deeper level, however, the work signifies a Latino nationalistic pride and heroicizes sensuality. The couple is timeless, neither modern nor clearly historical. The figures' archetypal stances -- his machismo, her sexuality -- are a face-off across the gender divide. The dark-complexioned man with Indian features writhes in a tight blue costume, a serape flung across his shoulder. The woman's blouse is slung low, revealing bare shoulders and full breasts. Folk art mixes with fine art.

A few years ago, controversy erupted over Moody Park's Vaquero, the gun-toting statue that pays exuberant homage to the Mexican cattlemen and horsemen of two centuries past. Installed in 1981, three years after the Moody Park riot, Jimenez's vividly painted fiberglass sculpture of a Mexican cowboy riding a bucking blue horse with red eyes has always had its detractors and defenders. Some area residents thought the sculpture depicted a drunken Mexican, and that the vaquero glorified violence in a violence-plagued area; those residents collected hundreds of signatures and petitioned the city to remove the statue from the park. But other residents viewed the Vaquero with pride and respect. Based on traditional monuments of historical figures on horseback, the statue powerfully conveyed the spirit of the vaquero in the taming of the West, but at the same time raised the problem of how such a work is perceived in the changing life of a community. Perhaps critic Dave Hickey stated it best: "There are no wrong ways to respond to the work of Luis Jimenez. There are only different ways of looking at it."

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