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Spirit of Texas

Luis Jimenez approaches the intangible by depicting the flesh

For more than 30 years, Jimenez has used images and techniques drawn from popular culture, particularly Mexican-American culture and Mexican myth. Much of the work deals with highly personal themes. "I'm from working-class roots," he says. "I grew up with working-class people. Whatever status their family might have achieved in Mexico, they had to enter [the United States] working at the bottom of the ladder."

The tall Border Crossing reads as a pillar of strength. The sculpture of a man carrying a woman on his shoulders with an infant's face poking out from beneath a blanket refers to the border crossing made long ago by the artist's own family. (Jimenez's father went on to become known for the elaborate electric and neon signs he made for businesses in El Paso.) But the image's history is much broader, too, incorporating almost a millennium of social, cultural and religious references. The piggyback figure of a man crossing the water recalls St. Christopher, who carried Jesus across a raging river. It was also the image of St. Christopher that brutal Spanish colonialists held aloft when they brought Catholicism to Mexico. And significantly, Jimenez's luridly colored fiberglass evokes the look that Chicanos of the Southwest have crafted in their low rider cars.

Throughout the retrospective, Jimenez can be seen remolding and redrawing the popular graphics and folk artifacts of his childhood in El Paso, investing that idiom with the political passion of the Mexican mural painters and vivacity of American pop art while re-examining its roots in the churches of Italy. Hickey describes this new/old art in terms of uniting Caravaggio and Bernini, of combining painting and sculpture in delicately balanced, freestanding objects that retain the transparency of oil painting. According to Hickey, Jimenez effected this synthesis by simply looking at the world around him with artist's eyes -- by recognizing, early on, that the dazzlingly slick low riders cruising the highways of the Southwest had already synthesized painting and sculpture. As a young Protestant growing up in a Catholic world with an artist's education, Jimenez recognized the Baroque elements of low-rider design, in the way the smooth steel and hundreds of coats of lacquer caught the light and held it in the hot desert sun. Toward this end, Hickey writes, "Jimenez managed, in his own small way, to give the culture that nurtured him back to itself."

The abundance of work in this exhibition allows us to see how specific images have mutated. The woman in rapturous coitus with a Volkswagen bug in Study for American Dream (1967) is transformed into the muscular, chain-smoking Statue of Liberty with huge tits, and later metamorphosed as an over-the-hill Barfly (1969), raising aloft a foaming beer stein. During this period, Jimenez seems obsessed with the bodies of women, viewing them with a mingling of distance, intimacy, lust, humor and spite. Some of these early works, which may now be regarded as curious missteps, are also characterized by urgency and raw passion, an unabashed curiosity and searching quality that would take Jimenez through he ebbs and flows of a tangled, personalized iconography.

His romanticism belies an attitude that is edgy and hard, obsessed with a clinical examination of the underbelly of human existence. The world he portrays both embraces and suppresses the past -- earthy, bodily, brutal and bloody; obsessed with sex and death; mythic, irrational and unsterile -- and the identification is linked even to the dark, pagan force that springs up through the cracks of Spanish Catholicism. His vibrant work offers a voyeuristic glimpse of a people split in opposite halves, of multiple personalities speaking concurrently. It's about the duality of presence and invisibility, about the coexistence of pride and self-loathing, about moral corruption and inexplicable redemption.

Border culture includes a deep fear: the fear of being seen, caught, trapped. Simply put, there is no frontier, no place to go to escape problems. Survival depends on an ability to live in the interstices and an awareness that those who can protect can also violate. For Jimenez, identity hangs in the balance between hard-lived fact and oppressive fiction. He's fascinated with the question of how to be a person -- to just be -- and possesses an unflagging faith in the real-life power of that aesthetic.

His best works are imbued with a poetic and moral truth, and attempt to make some mark for the spirit and the soul. In the process, he reminds us that the popular is not always pleasant, does not always sugarcoat the look of things, but is sometimes raw and gruesome. The Mexican is said to "greet death with a smile," but Jimenez's friends, family and animals struggle against the threat of violence or extinction. Constantly moving, working, running, dancing, his heroes seem unconsumable. Yet the very act of their survival is, in its own way, consuming. His people and animals have no choice but to throw themselves into their physical trials, becoming one with their passions and desires. In Entre la Puta y la Muerte (Between the Whore and Death) (1992), the seductive forces of life and death battle mercilessly for his father's soul. Baile con la Talaca (Lady Death Approaches) (1986) is a self-portrait in which the artist engages in a liberating dance with a grinning skeleton; it was created in reaction to the death of an old family friend. Elsewhere, death rides a galloping horse or waits for El Borracho (The Drunk) on a street corner.

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