TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1984

SIGNS: A CONVERSATION WITH LUIS JIMENEZ

Amy Baker Sandback: Your images are very much part of this country of immigrants and working people.

Luis Jimenez: If I was an outsider looking at America or the West—what would I see? What would I be looking at? It would be the strong and vibrant images that stand out, like the cowboy, not those coming out of the fine-art situation. It would be the motorcycle, the automobile; this is the important visible iconography of America, but it’s not art in itself. The use of these popular images is part of the game: to take my work as close to the edge as I can, because then the challenge is greater, and so is the payoff.

I see myself as an image maker. Any image that you put out there is a statement, conscious, unconscious or self-conscious. Not making a statement is a statement.

ABS: Your Vaquero sculpture in Houston [1980] functions on different levels that are often referred to as separate: artistic and social.

LJ: It was my first public commission. When I started doing research into public art I realized that one of the most common forms of sculpture, certainly within the Western tradition, is the equestrian. So the challenge became: how can I make people look at it again and how can I do something with my material—fiberglass—that bronze can’t do; that stone can’t; that hasn’t been done before? A lot of people don’t even see the Vaquero as an equestrian. But it is, and the scale is much the same as if it were in Washington, D.C.

The Vaquero piece is a tribute to the Mexican origins of the American cowboy, a statement about Texas, and also about the Mexican community within Texas. If you think of words connected with cowboys, like rodeo, corral, remuda, lariat, those words are all Spanish. The cowboy was a Mexican invention. It was the Spaniards that brought the cows and the horses and it was Mexicans who became the cowboys. It wasn’t John Wayne who was the original cowboy. That’s the myth. This contribution that the Mexican community made to Texas and the image of the United States has been totally overlooked.

In the past when people would say, “You’re a cowboy,” I’d answer, “No, I’m not a redneck.” To put this Vaquero in a Mexican community in Houston is a social statement.

ABS: He’s angry. He’s got a gun pointed up in the sky. Do you like unsettling people?

LJ: I’m redefining an image and a myth. I’m also coming out of the new spirit of the Mexican community of Texas. Not the old, “yes sir, no sir.” That’s not what won elections in places like San Antonio. It’s an aggressive mood. The sculpture is aggressive. For me he represents this difference. Social changes haven’t come about because people are willing to go along with the old situation. I also have the obligation to take a stand.

I grew up as a Chicano before it was a militant term. I’m comfortable with it. You needed a word because “Mexican” implied that you still had Mexican nationality. Mexicans don’t really accept Chicanos, they see us as traitors, and Anglo-Americans don’t quite accept Chicanos either. I come out of a minority within a minority, Mexican Protestants, which is a very small group with a strong sense of community, and of family. In New York I heard blacks talk about their sense of obligation to a larger community in whatever they did. I think that is there for me too. My dad and grandmother came from Mexico City, my mom’s parents came from Mexico too, and they came poor. It was a situation of being able to stand outside of both cultures. I now think it’s an advantage because that’s the role that the artist has always been in.

The Mexican people have been very poor but there’s always been respect for the arts. You can see that in the crafts. The important thing is interest. When I was young I felt my, skill was inherent in being Chicano, inherent in being Mexican, and that every Mexican not only had ability but also appreciated art. It was a kind of fantasy, but certainly within the context a positive thing.

ABS: This type of reliance on personal context and sources, this sense of involvement with a particular place or society, has at times been labeled “regional art.” You must have feelings about this phrase.

LJ: I’ve always found artists who responded to a regional situation fascinating, whether it’s Arthur Miller or James Baldwin or William Faulkner; these writers have been important to me in developing concepts about what I want to do. Every one of them focused on a very particular isolated situation that they knew well, and in so doing spoke also to broader issues. I feel more of an affinity with contemporary artists like Ed Kienholz than, say, the obvious connection with Frederic Remington or Charles Russell.

ABS: There’s a relation between an icon and a cliché that’s really the clue here. Both you and Kienholz use “real” images that could be understood both ways.

LJ: I use material that’s familiar to me, but the issues involved in the work go beyond personal or localized references. I am from the West and I’m an American, so that’s going to be in the work whether I want it or not. Kienholz is also a Western product but he isn’t making cliché “Western” art. I think he’s always been a kind of outsider and like a writer he gets involved in personal subject matter that addresses broader issues.

What I’m doing is about ideas, and obviously everybody comes away with something different. Somebody can get involved at one level, or they can use that as an entry level to get more involved. It’s not only what I’m stating about a particular community, it’s also what I’m stating about myself. It’s coming out of the border perspective. I find myself totally fascinated with what happened when the Moors went into Spain, or what happens today in New York City. The cultures clash and you get a hybrid vigor. You get flashy signs, you get bright color, energy. I might do the end of the trail as an electric sunset as a kind of tribute to the image of the end of the trail; however, the piece is also about my own feelings about what’s happened with the American Indian.

ABS: You say that you have been influenced more by writers than by other artists.

LJ: Yes. The writers that attract me are those that are basically writing their autobiographies. They’re writing about themselves and giving us a very personal idea of what it’s like to be alive here and now. In the process they are making a statement about the general culture.

ABS: Is what you’re doing also personal narrative?

LJ: I never thought of it that way, but I guess so. I hadn’t defined it that way.

ABS: What about all the symbols in your pieces, or things that could be taken as symbols, like the snakes?

LJ: In New York a girl squatted down and hiked up her dress in front of one of the snakes. She laughed and ran out of the gallery giggling. I’m particularly fascinated with sexual symbols. I believed in the universality of certain images before I even knew who Carl Jung was yet it was a shock in 1980 to go to Italy six years after having made the Progress I sculpture to see the same theme in the sacrificial sculptures of the man cutting the bull’s throat, with some of the same details, including the snake and the dog, that appeared in my piece. Certain things I grew up with that I had assumed were Mexican or American I saw were indeed universal.

ABS: By consciously making the decision to do public work, you’ve chosen a special relationship to the public—and to art’s success in working with a community.

LJ: I want my art to be public, part of everyday life. I think most museums are essentially mausoleums, and that art seen there has been removed from any social context or interaction. Certainly only a small percentage of Chicanos go. They’re not made welcome. A project in Fargo, North Dakota, is an example of both my failure and my success in working with a community. I usually can’t come up with quick solutions. North Dakota is far from anything I had ever known. I met with the local community, visited the area, and read history books about the region. I put up two shows at the local museum. It took time. For me, it’s part of a subconscious process to digest the material.

There were also physical considerations. The main street of the town had been converted into a pedestrian mall with some vehicular traffic. There are overhead canopies for snow—in fact, the site was under twenty feet of snow when I first saw it. I realized that North Dakota is an environment that gets to fifty degrees below in the winter. The only reason people survive, the native Americans or the Scandinavians that followed, is their strong sense of community. With the settlers this was reflected in events like barn buildings which gathered the community together. My first idea was to come in with a barn dance. I have my own agenda for what I want to do, and for years I nave been wanting to do a dance piece. The “Honky Tonk” cut-outs [1982] were a way of pacifying myself. The idea of relating separate pieces to each other without them being physically connected fascinates me. It’s a wonderful spatial problem. It would be a fun piece yet have serious implications. I explained all the formal reasons to the community and they were very polite. They approved it with only one dissenting vote. But I knew there was something wrong. Finally they said, you have to understand that we’re Scandinavian Lutherans—no drinking, smoking, or dancing—and while all this went on, it’s not the way we like to see ourselves. Although I had worked out a good piece, there would always be an ingrained resentment, so I went back to the drawing board. I did some sketches of the farmer, of the sodbuster. I had worked him out before with a tractor, but with oxen he became someone I could really feel. And of course, he was a logical progression after the Vaquero piece. I sent out a model. The piece [The Sodbuster: San Isidro] was approved unanimously this time.

ABS: They were saying that they wanted a sign. And that makes you a sign maker. You brought it right back to the street. When we begin to talk about placing public sculpture, aren’t the considerations close to those necessary in placing a commercial sign so it can be seen?

LJ: The formal problems are the same. I would be dishonest here if I didn’t acknowledge that my dad influenced me. I grew up in a sign shop in El Paso, Texas. My dad got national prizes for his neon spectaculars. He sent neon signs to Las Vegas and all over. Sign men, like Barney Wise in New York, knew his work and would visit El Paso. My father wanted to be an artist. I’ve talked about this with Anton Van Dalen. We’re both examples of the son living out the dream of the father. His became a high school principal, and an amateur artist. Mine found his outlet in the sign business. As far as I’m concerned my father made works of art—though they were considered popular culture, and therefore "low art.” In the case of my Dad and me, there’s a lot of mingling going on. When I was around 6 we made a concrete bear for a dry cleaning firm. When I was 16 we made a twenty-foot-high horse’s head, with eyes that lit up, for a big drive-in. So basically I’m still doing the same things that I was doing then, and the kind of things he did in those spectaculars.

In North Dakota when they saw photos of the completed work they switched the site to their main intersection. My feeling is that in public pieces, I don’t want to have a competitive relationship with a building. There’s no way I can win against a skyscraper. Sculpture has served for centuries as a way of humanizing urban spaces. It’s one way of making art part of the world again instead of separating it off. People became familiar with the artwork as I worked with the community. I think that’s an important part of the project. They put up with me even though I was two years late. The general consensus was that the piece was different, but they liked it. My assistant, Ted Kuykendall, heard two older women: one said, “I hate that piece.” Ted went up to her and asked why. She said, "Because it reminds me of hard times.”

I have also made a stand at certain times. For example, I was approached to do a piece for the tourist area of Albuquerque called Old Town. I didn’t pick the site. Old Town was the original Albuquerque settlement and some people there identify themselves as being of Spanish versus Mexican descent. It’s a class distinction and is used to divide the Hispanic community. They were the aristocracy, are conservative, and still are the political establishment. They do not see themselves as part of the larger Mexican-American community. So just the mere fact that I was selected put me in a difficult situation.

ABS: It must have been loaded.

LJ: I was in a no-win position since they have always lived in terror and fear of the invaders from the south. I could have tiptoed around their fears but I wanted to make a Chicano statement. I made that decision long ago. I don’t feel that artists are in the business of making merchandise. I’ve been trying to make an alternative situation for myself, but I don’t exist in a vacuum and recognize my need for dialogue. Going back out West in 1971 was a conscious decision to work on pieces that were public in scale and so had that special access. It was a question of developing a language, also a particular kind of technology, and it seemed to make more sense to go West to do it. It also was going back to those visual images I know best and to a relation to that landscape, and my own background. In Albuquerque I came in with the most common Mexican-American image, the Indian man holding an Indian woman, which goes back to the pre-Columbian myth of the two volcanoes visible outside of Mexico City. The active volcano is the male and the dormant volcano is female. That image was carried into the United States and is still seen on jackets and cars and murals from Texas to California. A partial explanation is that it is an archetypal image, a reverse pieta. Working with a community doesn’t necessarily mean you always agree with it. Quickly rumors spread through the Spanish-American community that I was portraying an Indian woman who had been raped by a Spaniard. (In the 1500s the Spaniards were in fact accused of the rape of a Tiguex woman, and the Old Town park is called Tiguex Park.) There were six months of bad local press, with pictures of barrio murals with the same subject matter, which gave the impression that they were my drawings. That validated the use of the image for me. The most wonderful criticism they gave me was that the idea was too Mexican. Prior to the meeting for approval of the piece, I was told not to make the idea public, and to come in with a different idea. I invited two people in particular to the meeting, since it was supposed to be public. One was Vicente Ximenes, who has been politically active with the G.I. Forum for years, as well as having served as President Johnson’s chairman of the cabinet committee on Mexican-American affairs. The other was the writer Rudy Anaya, who knows the local art community. They defended the piece because they understood where it was coming from. And the panel approved it. Then the mayor pressured the panel into rescinding their vote,which they did. It got that nasty. Next, people from other parts of the city came to the mayor to say that if Old Town didn’t want it, they did. Frank Martinez asked if I would be willing to move the piece to Martineztown, a community settled by workers. He went to the mayor with signatures from the community, and so we reached a compromise. In the next mayoral election, Martinez is running against the incumbent mayor.

ABS: Who says that art doesn’t affect politics?

LJ: It can. I do my work to make a difference. I’m doing a piece for Buffalo, New York, that’s a steel worker. Ironically the steel plants are closing, and I’ve been asked about its relevancy. My answer is that the steel worker is still the strong image of the area and, again, its myth survives as the reality. (Our myths can only become myths when the reality is dead.) It is basically a blue-collar statement that is a tribute to those men. Like The Sodbuster.

ABS: I can’t think of anybody that has influenced the way your art looks, and I don’t see the work as being a continuation of the Ashcan School.

LJ: I don’t either. But we have the same sources. I don’t want to seem like I sprang up out of nowhere. What I really like is the old guys. In school I was taught that Bernini and the Baroque were decadent. But when I saw those Berninis, I loved the problems he set out for himself. His Piazza Navona sculpture in Rome, with the enormously complex base holding up the simple obelisk, is a complete reversal of the usual. But I don’t want to get into the technical. I respond at a gut level, and when I see those pieces I get goose bumps. It’s the same gut-level sensuality that I obviously appreciate. I love the material, and the feel of it. It’s part of what it is to be alive; to enjoy eating or feeling or touching.

I guess the only way my work can be seen as new is the fact that it’s being done now and with modern materials.

ABS: You’ve chosen to be a craftsman as well as an artist.

LJ: My father wanted to produce a super sign man. By the time I was 16 I could do everything in the plant. You asked me at one point about the cars and I dodged the question. But I grew up with cars. The first fiberglass I ever used was on a wrecked ’53 Studebaker. I repaired it using fiberglass, but I never thought I would ever use fiberglass on art. When I was growing up, whether it was in the sign business or playing around with cars, the tour de force of a flawless surface was desirable. When I tell somebody who does fiberglass that I’m making a 50-section mold they don’t believe it, because in the car or boat business if you make a two- or three-piece mold it’s already complicated.

I really need a material that is a statement in itself, one that can incorporate color and fluid form, the sensuality that I like. Somehow fiberglass seems to do that. Those people that I admire, like Alexander Calder and Julio González, made a very important statement in their use of iron and steel. In New York I worked as an assistant to Seymour Lipton. I could weld, it was just that simple. I was already doing my fiberglass pieces. He was very helpful to me in defining the role of the artist, as was the fact that he worked with symbols.

ABS: You said before that your work can be read in various ways. Are the pieces overblown caricatures? Are they three-dimensional cartoons?

LJ: No. When I was a kid going to the rodeo with my dad, he would say that the cowboy clowns were the best and most serious professionals. That rang true to me. Their job is to keep somebody from getting hurt.