The 1,000-year curse of public art is that most of it is designed to be as bland and inoffensive as possible. Governmental committees typically give the go-ahead to public art projects that only appeal to the lowest common denominator. The guiding philosophy seems to be that if art is going to be displayed permanently in public spaces, it had best not get under anyone's skin.
If there's one thing that can be said about Luis Jimenez—who died last week in a freak accident in his studio in Hondo—it's that he knew how to get under people's skin. And we're lucky he did.
For the last four decades, Jimenez created public art designed to provoke. He once depicted the Statue of Liberty as a drunk. His “Border Crossing” series, housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, celebrated his family's illegal immigration into the United States from Mexico.
Buddhist monks who doused themselves in kerosene and set themselves ablaze in protest of the Vietnam War inspired Jimenez' famous sculpture from 1969 called “Man on Fire.” This particular piece, which was exhibited at the Smithsonian, played a pivotal role in expanding his reputation as a nationally renowned artist with a profound social and political conscience.
Here in Albuquerque, we're blessed to have a few of the finest examples of Jimenez' jarring sculptural creations. One of his most emotional pieces is located in Martineztown, in Longfellow Park on the corner of Edith and Roma. Titled “Southwest Pieta,” locals were outraged when it was installed back in the ’80s because they believed it depicted the rape of an Indian woman by a Spanish conquistador. Jimenez denied this, insisting the sculpture was based on an ancient Aztec legend.
UNM students are often puzzled, and even disgusted, by his “Fiesta Dancers” sculpture, a garish and distorted characterization of flamenco dancers located in front of the university's Center for the Arts. What many don't realize is that the vibrant fiberglass sculpture is intended to be a commentary on the often garish and distorted views mainstream American culture projects of Hispanics. In this piece, as in so many others, Jimenez plays with kitsch and commercialism to comment on popular (mis)perceptions.
His death is an overwhelming tragedy, but I suppose we should count our blessings. Cathy Gore, who heads our city's public arts program, tells me the Smithsonian actually contacted her a couple months ago about the possibility of setting up a tour of Jimenez' work because we're privileged to possess so much of his art here in Albuquerque.
You have to wonder what an artist who worked so adeptly with irony would have thought of the circumstances surrounding his own death. Jimenez lived in southern New Mexico in the Sacramento Mountains. The day he died he was working on a monumental fiberglass sculpture of a horse, a commission for the Denver International Airport. While attempting to move the statue with the aid of two assistants, a piece of it fell down and pinned him against a steel support, killing him. He was 65 years old.