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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."

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.

This exhibition reveals that drawing has come to be an essential part of Jimenez's art, the very core of his style. His line -- there's nothing quite like it, which is why viewers see all things in it. The strokes tower, bevel, loop and dart. The sureness of his hand is almost infallible. Set down at collision speed, the line's velocity endows his drawings of people and animals with a smoldering intensity that is pronounced, arresting and inescapable. In Vato Loco con su Wisa (Barrio Guy with Girlfriend) (1994) and Cholo with Lowrider Van (1993), Jimenez's line does not describe the image; it embodies it.

He deals with the tension between that which seems ephemeral and yet is still powerfully imagined. While driving near Santa Fe, Jimenez came upon a coyote that had been hit by a car. Her back broken, she howled in pain. Jimenez had no gun, so he killed her with his hands to end her suffering. And then he drew her. In the sensitive portrait, he isolates the coyote's head as if severed at the neck. We see her soft muzzle and large pointed ears. Her body hangs limp by its legs, the abdomen a gaping wound, but a vital grace comes through Jimenez's variegated strokes of color and bristling line.

Similarly, Jimenez's delicate portrait of his father, moments before death, fairly vibrates with a brave and urgent expressiveness. A series of hand-colored lithographs from 1995 shows Jimenez grappling with his own issues of mortality. Much like the trapped coyote, the artist had to come to terms with the total loss of sight in his left eye. The tension between spontaneous gesture and emotional restraint heightens the sense of psychological intimacy; Jimenez increasingly portrays himself with wolflike features.

It's this quality of desperation, of hanging on by one's fingernails, that gives Jimenez's work its continued resonance. To face one of his drawings or sculptures is to open vast areas of feeling, to recognize something about ourselves and our culture. If anything, Jimenez's sculptures, drawings and prints take hold of us because they acknowledge that the body is intact, whole, energetic, responsive, alive.

"Working-Class Heroes: Images from the Popular Culture"is on view through March 28 at Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston entrance no. 16 (off Cullen Blvd.), (713)743-9528.

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