Visual Arts

The Cold West

You can't chuck a Grand Canyon snow globe in the Southwest without hitting a Luis Jimenez sculpture. His biliously colored, Pop Art-goes-Chicano depictions of cowboys, horses, Indians and other iconic figures of the West are a fixture of university concourses and art museum sculpture gardens from Phoenix to Houston. Jimenez pieces are hipper than the usual coma-inducing Western bronzes, because the El Paso-born artist incorporates distinctly unclassical materials into his work -- fiberglass, metal-fleck paint and electric light bulbs. Some of his sculptures have stirred rancorous controversy among groups that didn't like his Mexican-American take on history.

Mesa Arts Center shows another side of the internationally known artist with an exhibition that focuses on his 2-D work: lithographs, watercolors and crayon sketches. There are sculptures, too, but it's the flat work that intrigues. Full of raucous vitality and dripping with baroque populism, Jimenez's prints are the love children of Mexican public murals and political cartoons. They're as subtle as a baseball bat, agitprop aimed at connecting to the masses. In the best of them, Jimenez, now in his 60s, rails about social and environmental injustices with romantic, overwrought imagery drawn from traditional Mexican art. It's all death, blood and writhing bodies, and minimalism is a heartless enemy.

In a watercolor study of a coyote -- or, more precisely, the carcass of a coyote -- Jimenez depicts the animal upside down with legs pointing upward, to accentuate its lifelessness. A large red stain blooms on the side of its body; it appears the animal has been shot. On the same sheet of paper, Jimenez paints a close-up of the dead animal's head; it looks like a sleeping, domesticated canine. Here's the symbol of the Southwest looking decidedly unspectacular and decidedly dead. You can imagine the poor critter wandered by a luxury home recently erected in his ancestral terrain, only to be gunned down by the home's frightened owner, who feared the beast would eat the family Shih Tzu. We like our coyotes on refrigerator magnets and tee shirts, thank you, not wandering in the woods behind the subdivision. We like the idea of wildness, but not the reality.

Jimenez does more symbol-busting in the color lithograph Trapped Coyote, which shows the animal of the title coiled and crouched in fear, snarling at an unseen aggressor. It hangs next to the watercolor coyote, and you imagine this is the same animal in his final minute on Earth, raging against death and pain.

The newest work in the show is the most overtly political, far edgier and angrier than Jimenez's earlier work. You get the feeling he's channeling into the prints a lifetime of private anger that had no place in public art.

In the black-and-white lithograph War Horse, a stallion frothing with rage stomps on metal containers of nuclear waste. We know the horse is radioactive because he has the universal symbols for radioactivity all over his body. We know the cans are filled with glowing toxic waste because they're labeled "WIPP," a reference to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a nuclear waste dump that opened in 1999 in New Mexico. Beneath the horse's hooves are boards labeled with the names of the state's military installations: Los Alamos, Canon AFB, Sandia Labs. Live by the sword, die by the sword seems to be the message, and Jimenez delivers it in the tradition of early 20th-century Mexican murals.

The influences of Mexican folk art can be felt in The Good Shepherd, a color lithograph commemorating the death of Esequiel Hernandez, an 18-year-old Mexican-American goatherd who was shot to death along the Texas border in 1997 by U.S. troops who mistook him for a drug smuggler. The piece is done in the style of a retablo, with a gunsight serving as Esequiel's saintly halo, and a written inscription telling how he died. Esequiel stands among his animals like a brown-skinned St. Francis of Assisi; behind him, among the cactuses, lurk gun-toting commandos, the demons in this parable.

Jimenez strays from his usual Latino themes and takes on the Iraq war in Assyrian Lion, a 2003 color lithograph that shows a lioness collapsing in death with U.S. missiles protruding from her back. The wounds have paralyzed the animal's hindquarters; she drags them through a pool of blood as a ziggurat collapses in the background. It's a heavy-handed anti-war screed with a message aimed at hearts, not heads. It's right at home in the age of the spin.

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Leanne Potts