The muscular sculptures of Luís Jiménez vibrate with a kinetic energy bordering on the operatic.
The artist considered one of the finest sculptors of his generation produced a similarly dramatic impact as a draftsman.
Open at the Albuquerque Museum through May, “Luís Jiménez: Motion and Emotion” showcases that talent with 14 works on paper.
Born and raised in El Paso, Jiménez spent two years in Mexico City revelling in the vibrant murals of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
“He really went after the musculature of the figure,” curator Josie Lopez said. “He really looked at the details.”
Jiménez grew up working in his father’s neon sign studio. The lights instilled in him his love of bright color and action. It also introduced him to his signature material: fiberglass.
At times his visual language bristles with humor, at other moments, it turns heart-wrenching and unabashedly political. Jiménez’s figures emphasize the sinews, curves and even tendons, veins and beads of sweat. His work often challenges viewers to confront myths and issues surrounding la frontera (the border) and the concept of cultural purity.
He used unorthodox materials like fiberglass, glitter and lights in an age defined by abstraction and minimalism.
Jiménez’s drawing skills were equally vibrant, infused with a sense of energy and action. Many of the drawings and lithographs in the exhibition later evolved into sculptures such as “Southwest Pieta,” “Border Crossing” and “Sodbuster.”
The 1983 lithograph for “Southwest Pieta” refers to a Mexican folk tale about an Indigenous pair of star-crossed lovers. Iztaccíhuatl fell in love with the warrior Popocatépetl. When he went off to battle, she heard he had died. Iztaccíhuatl then died from grief. When the warrior returned to find his dead love, he also died from sadness. The gods turned the pair into volcanoes to unite them in the afterlife.
The artist’s reference to Michelangelo’s classic sculpture of Mary cradling the limp body of Christ was intentional, Lopez said. Jiménez also included the specifically Mexican symbols of the snake and the eagle.
“When the Aztecs longed for land to settle, the gods told them to look for an eagle carrying a snake on top of a cactus,” Lopez said. “That’s where Mexico City was built.’
Jiménez also created “Southwest Pieta” as a sculpture standing at the corner of Roma and Edith in Martineztown. The work ignited controversy in 1983 when the city commissioned it to be placed across the street from the museum in Tiguex Park. Members of the Old Town Founders Group objected to it, claiming it resembled a rape. Jiménez insisted it symbolized the reality of multiculturalism in New Mexico. In the end, the sculpture moved to the historically Mexican-American neighborhood of Martineztown.
In 1999 “Southwest Pieta” was designated as a National Treasure by President Bill Clinton.
Jiménez used art to humanize and uplift the marginalized.
“Border Crossing” features a man carrying a woman and an infant across the Rio Grande. The artist conceived the work as a tribute to his grandfather, who, with his grandmother and father, illegally crossed the border between Mexico and Texas in 1924.
Jiménez later said: “I had wanted to make a piece that was dealing with the issue of the illegal alien… . People talked about aliens as if they landed from outer space, as if they weren’t really people. I wanted to put a face on them: I wanted to humanize them.”
The sculpture now stands in the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas.
But not all of his work focuses on such dramatic issues.
“There’s a print in here that’s like a dance hall,” Lopez added. “He likes to bring in music and dance and something uplifting.”
The 2010 lithograph of “Steve Jordan” features a man playing the accordion with exuberance. The work is a tribute to the real-life musician who was partially blinded as an infant and unable to work in the fields with his migrant parents. His music fused jazz, rock, salsa and zydeco. Jordan’s nicknames included “The Jimi Hendrix of the Accordion.”
Jiménez was committed to the figure during a time when many artists avoided it.
The artist spent six yeas in New York City before moving to New Mexico in the early 1970s. He lived in Hondo until his tragic death after a piece of his sculpture “Blue Mustang” (now rearing outside of the Denver International Airport) fell on him, severing an artery in 2006.