New York

Luis Jimenez

Alternative Museum

There is a tendency to approach public art timidly. Scale can, of course, be inflated to bravado proportions, but other dimensions are often reduced. In the search for common themes and shared associations, many artists digress to a muddled, simplified esthetic. The intentions may be good, but the works are blandly uncommunicative. No-brand, generic public art ignores everything but an anticipated majority, but the idea of a public is an abstraction; “the public” does not really exist. “Public” implies a transcendence of pluralism toward a meaningless neutrality. Pollsters perpetuate the idea of “the public,” but triumphant moments in art and elsewhere often involve unpredictable and surprising behavior and events, and we are refreshed by the revelation of the fallaciousness of our generalizations.

The bold work of Luis Jimenez has reconstituted and invigorated the concept of public art. Rather than straining for elusive commonalities, his work is episodic, focused, narrative, and mythological. The American West is his home and the source of his ideas; that landscape has long constituted a kind of geography of the American psyche. It is the crossroads of determination, insatiability, the beautiful, the unrefined, and the erotic, the psychological site of the American themes of progress and the frontier. Jimenez’s work is infused by these myths, and, with big gestures, irony, and affection, he exposes the invented and inherited substance of the messages, and suggests why our mythological characters so often become shallow stereotypes.

In the museum space a large selection of Jimenez’s drawings, from 1966 to 1983, demonstrated a vigorous proficiency with line and color, as well as the persistence and evolution of his ideas. The drawings are filled with gyrating bodies, big cars, leaping forms, horses, and steamy eroticism. American Dream, 1971, is a passionate hallucination, a thrusting car between the legs of a willing and weakened Western woman. Jimenez takes the automotive love affair literally but unseriously. In a small cutout study of a favorite theme, that of progress, passages are linearly represented by a Native American warrior, the white man discovering America, the conqueror turned cowboy, and a racing stagecoach with rifles firing back at the advancing past, all preceded by a locomotive/roadster/missile transfiguration. The cutout effectively recapitulates the textbook history that often mistakes the chronology of main events.

But Jimenez’s enormous resin-and-fiberglass sculptures are the heart and guts of his work. He tells old stories with a new vision. These naturalistic compositions could almost be 19th-century commemorative statuary, but their sleek, brightly colored, high-gloss automotive finishes create a fusion of rugged regionalism, Pop art, and high tech which is heroic and honky-tonk.

Progress I, 1974, compresses a wounded bison and a warrior on a staggering horse in a primal struggle whose outcome is open to interpretation. The balance between human and natural forces in a sparse desert landscape suggests that progress falters as it advances. Progress II,1982, introduces new developments: a vaquero triumphantly ropes a panicky steer. Nothing contains the work’s diverging internal forces, which seem to catapult beyond the taut lasso. Jimenez explores a more pastoral theme in Sodbuster, 1982, a two-part, 24-foot-long sculpture in which a farmer guides a spirited team of oxen through the heavy earth and swaying grass of the prairies. Sodbuster was created as an outdoor public work for Fargo, North Dakota, where the artist saw the work ethic still running strong and true in a vernacular landscape. The momentum of this monumental piece could have sent it blasting out of the gallery; it clearly needs an outdoor site.

Jimenez’s work defies odds and conventional judgment. He employs narrative dreams, regional themes, and a naturalistic esthetic, and yet escapes sentimentality and the hackneyed. His work is gutsy and sweaty and has none of the icy intellectual distance that ironically informs so much current neoexpressionism; he has the vision and trust to believe that it has public presence. He understands that a pluralistic community can comprehend and delight in remote experiences and can give sympathetic viewing to the inflated content and diminished power of myths. Jimenez entrusts his audience with a venture of imaginative reassessment. His outdoor works confirm that things went awry when it was decided that the idiosyncratic, the controversial, and the boisterous have no place in public life and art.

Patricia C. Phillips