Man on Fire by Kathleen Whitney
Luis Jiménez is a "hot" artist, a man on fire. There is no rationale in his work for the cool, the mediated, the distanced; these alternatives are no option for a body of work derived from observation and experience. His imagery is a rejection of the conceptual and is unresponsive to the fashionable posturing of the Postmodern. Heat is its reference point.
Plaza de Los Lagartos (Plaza of the Alligators), 1993. Fiberglas with urethane finish and cement, fountain, 9.6 x 9.5 x 9.5 ft.
In Luis Jiménez's work everything is "in heat" or "on fire" in all possible senses of those words-as in enflamed by rage or passion, as in activated or "firing on all cylinders." This notion of heat is inclusive, conflating the heat of politics with the heat of conflicting relations between nations and peoples. The perception of heat waves, of meltdown, is reinforced by the implication of movement in his work-an amazing accomplishment for static images of the body. His figures imply action in the way they are modeled. Their bodies act against the strain of gravity and respond to the forces of time and weather. Their physiques express the reality of those who have experienced overexposure to the elements, grinding daily physical labor, violent emotions, and intense sexual passions. Jiménez's interest is not in the static, idealized body at rest; the fashionably lean or pumped-up bodies of gym addicts. A Jiménez body is a body working at the serious business of living, surviving. These are bodies of the true "other," revealed to a culture that refuses to acknowledge social class and ethnicity as defining realities. These are the bodies of workers, of men and women who "work out" for a living, not for pleasure, vanity, or to fill leisure time. Jiménez's work neither idealizes nor mythologizes these laborers' bodies. Instead, these images undermine the traditional use of sculpture as a vehicle for memorializing famous, rich, or influential white men. Jiménez's heroes are anonymous Chicanos and mestizos, brown-skinned peoples, immigrants from Mexico and Central America who are farmers, laborers, cowboys, and heroes of Aztec myths and legends. The sculptures are a eulogy, an homage to where Jiménez came from-to his Hispanic roots and his Chicano heritage, to his affiliation with the American worker and his blood-bond with the landscape and wildlife of all points south.
Jiménez's work is infused with a distinctive and idiosyncratic world view that combines Chicano border consciousness with a keenly critical political sensibility and unquestioning belief in the social utility of art. After a move from his native El Paso to New York City in the early '60s, the now 57-year-old Jiménez began his career exhibiting work with a Pop sensibility. By the '70s, as a consequence of the Chicano movement, he made use of the critical potential inherent in the Pop style to explore Chicano values and criticize American racism and politics. His investigations into chicanismo developed into a syncretistic compilation of various aspects of border life, including low-rider culture, el dia de los muertes imagery, and pre-Colombian iconography. His interest in the "working man" as icon and image, as well as his commitment to public art, is directly inspired by the work of the influential Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco. Jiménez is an influential presence as a community activist in New Mexico and in his role as professor of art at the University of Houston, Texas. His public works have been commissioned for many U.S. cities including Miami, Las Vegas, San Diego, El Paso, Albuquerque, and Washington, D.C. He has acted as mentor to many younger artists including Benito Huerta, Jesús Bautista Moroles, and Ted Kuykendall. A retrospective exhibition curated by Huerta, "Luis Jiménez: Working Class Heroes, Images from the Popular Culture," is on exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art through August of 1997, after which it will tour to a number of venues throughout the United States for the next three years.
Fountain at Horton Plaza, 1988. 92.5 x 34 ft.
Over the past 30 years, Jiménez has produced an extraordinarily consistent body of work informed by his highly developed craft skills, knowledgeof art history, and his particular placement in time. His work is a product of the '60s, formed by that period's questioning of materials, address to audience, and renascence of political consciousness. As single-minded as it has been in terms of its means and imagery, what gives his body of work its moral weight and imagistic coherence is its conceptual reconstitution of the personal and the political. These twin notional elements give Jiménez's work enormous scope and forge an alliance between the two concepts generally thought of as mutually exclusive: private and public. When asked why he chose the frustrations of public art when his first successes were in the standard gallery context, Jiménez replied: "I believe in the communicative power of the image; I believe people can be changed through exposure to images. I make my work so that it will be accessible to the group normally ignored by 'private art' makers-the blue-collar audience. My work is made for a community." The nature of his artistic production has been determined by his perception and definition of the artist's public role in society. His private experience as a Chicano child of immigrants in the deeply racist Texas city of El Paso and his observation of the conflict and consonance between recent immigrants, more established immigrants, and Anglos has proved to be a rich resource for public expressions of his views.
"Man on Fire" (1969), a life-sized Fiberglas figure, is the quintessential Jiménez sculpture. It is multivalent in meaning and imagery: partly derived from a story Jiménez was told as a child and partly a recreation of an event that occurred in the mid-'60s. The childhood story narrated the tale of the last Aztec to fight the invading Spanish in the 16th century. The 18-year-old Aztec warrior, Cuauhtemoc, was ultimately captured by the Spanish and tortured to death by fire. Cuauhtemoc became a symbol of the Mexican revolution and was often painted by Mexican muralists, particularly Orozco. Jiménez's Man on Fire is a potent sign containing references to a range of historical events: the Aztec warrior, the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire in protest over the war in Vietnam, and the incendiary race riots that occurred in many American cities during the same time. The use of a traditional Mexican story or a Native American myth to illustrate a contemporary situation is paradigmatic for much of Jiménez's work. His use of Fiberglas, a material he has employed for three decades, is also meaningful and deliberate. Plastic is the ultimate 20th-century material, a material of the people rather than of the elite; it is brightly colored, inexpensive, easily duplicated, and ultimately toxic. Regarding his material choices, Jiménez has said: "I'm a very fast worker. Fiberglas suits my process and allows lots of leeway, because everything is flexible until we start casting. Fiberglas is very direct and also very democratic. It's not a real 'artist's' material, it's the stuff people use on motorcycles and lowriders. It doesn't have the same high culture associations bronze has. My material is part of the statement."
Fiesta Dancers, 1991. Fiberglas with urethane finish, 12 ft. high.
Jiménez's work has often generated passionate controversy, resulting in many encounters with community groups. He wants his work to encourage dialogue. These experiences have brought him to the conviction that "the worst thing for a work of art is to be ignored. People can be affected by a work of art they hate if it makes them think. My work tries to make bridges within a community, and it can evoke controversy if it brings up issues people would rather ignore."
The controversy generated by a commission installed on the University of New Mexico's campus in Albuquerque is typical of the opposition Jiménez has experienced in the past. The two-figure, larger-than-life-sized grouping, Fiesta Dancers (1991), is, like Man on Fire, emblematic of Jiménez's concerns. It represents a middle-aged pair of dark-skinned Hispanic dancers celebrating on a feast day. The woman is dressed traditionally for the occasion in a long, swirling skirt. Her body is voluptuous, with dark hair reaching her waist, and her swelling hips and breasts accentuated by tight, form-fitting clothes. She is theatrically made-up, lipstick smeared. The man has a slight pot-belly and thin legs; he is wearing his workmen's jeans and cowboy boots. The man's sombrero is on the ground between the pair; they are clearly poised to begin the traditional dance around it. The woman is nearly as tall as the man and she boldly looks him in the eye; he focuses his gaze on her décolleté. Though the occasion is clearly festive, the mood between the dancers is, like the muted colors Jiménez has chosen for them, strangely somber. There is a charge between them that is both combative and sexual; they are clearly displaying themselves to each other, completely engaged in a mating ritual initiated by the traditional celebration.
The piece is well-sited; it is the centerpiece of a plaza facing onto Popejoy Hall, the university's performing and visual arts center. It not only announces the public function of this building, it contributes a formal focus to the plaza and an introduction to this significant portion of the campus. While the reception of the piece was largely positive, controversy around it centered on various issues ranging from sexism to skin color. Some members of the Hispanic community felt that the male dancer's skin color was too dark; certain women felt that the piece itself was sexist and "macho." Jiménez responded to the first objection by observing that this kind of color-consciousness is the racist consequence of Latino colonization by white Europeans. While he acknowledges the difficulty many feminists have with his work, he answers such objections by remarking on the fact that the United States is "obsessed with the repression of sexuality and sensuality and has yet to overcome the Puritan influence. Images such as these are engraved in the Mexican and Chicano psyches. Machismo is certainly an element of Latin culture," he says, "but I am observing it, not inventing it."
The Fiesta Dancers celebrates sensuality, yet the eroticism of the piece barely masks a pointed sense of fate, oppression, and inevitability. This is characteristic of all Jiménez's work; while his images celebrate one aspect of life, they mourn the loss of some essential freedom of choice to be more, to have access to more scope, experience, and possibility. The core of Jiménez's world view is intensely moral. What is expressed in all his work is the sense that joy is only a brief respite from work: celebrate as much as you wish, get drunk, get laid; in the morning, you'll go back to the job and the job goes on and on until you drop dead. Life is rich and colorful but not controllable: fate is in the body and biology is an irresistible force. Everything is in constant motion between the best and the worst of all outcomes.
Steelworker, 1989. Fiberglas with urethane finish, 12.5 ft. high.
It is a mistake to see Jiménez's work through the exoticizing veil of ethnicity. It is an absurd and essentializing simplification to perceive it as performing within third world versus first world, or center versus periphery polarities. This work, though clearly well-conceived and executed, is difficult: it is deliberately vulgar and impure and it embodies a Chicano aesthetic known as "rasquachismo," which can be loosely translated as: "funky," "make-do." This is an aesthetic of syncretism, what anthropoligist James Clifford calls "cultural imbroglio": it takes on what is available, all the materials and methods of popular, traditional, and contemporary culture. Such a construction is ill-served by facile field-theory notions like "multiculturalism."
Although much has been written about Jiménez's use of folk art and his "primitivism," these claims cannot be sustained in the face of the work. These notions oversimplify and obscure the sophistication of this artist, the deliberate nature of the choices made, and the goals/function sought by his work. His figures are invested with an authority that has nothing to do with anthropology; they exist within a sphere of reference spe cific to themselves and their particular histories. This history does include reference to pre-Colombian and colonial periods in Latin-American history, yet, unlike most political strategies that refer only to a pastoral, idyllic "then," the utopian time before the European invasion, Jiménez's work is about recent history, the here and now, with all that "here" implies for minorities in the United States.
Southwest Pieta, 1983. Fiberglas with urethane finish, 15 x 9.3 ft.
Jiménez's work is not about generalities, not about marginalization, nor the well-known Latin "fantastic- marvelous." His eulogizing of men and women workers of color is not expressed in terms of "simplicity," "wisdom," or "innocence." His work expresses no pre-industrial nostalgia. Where he uses myth, as in his Southwest Pieta (1987), it is clear he is dealing with mythology's ideological powers; there are no noble savages and no wise elders.
While there is a strong Eurocentric precedent for Jiménez's type of work (his public work functions in an arena directly descended from the Italian Renaissance), the nature of his imagery makes his monuments function differently. They are not vehicles for classical representations or facile generalizations. Instead, they are about contemporary complexity and its fragmentation, about the clash between social classes, traditions, ideologies, and identities. Jiménez rejects the intangibility of "multiculturalism" and banal notions of the "other" in favor of a kind of involved reportage, observation of reality and reflection of difference. His Pop sensibility allows him to make work that is easily accessible, politically conscious, and deeply philosophical.
Kathleen Whitney is a sculptor and writer. (Note: Quotations in this essay are from an 1996 interview with Jiménez by the author.)
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