The artist is world-renowned for his large fiberglass sculptures and will be discussing his work this weekend in the Quad Cities. As part of the exhibit The American Experience, Jiménez will give two gallery talks on Saturday at the Davenport Museum of Art - one in Spanish and one in English. Two of Jimenez's lithographs - Tan Lejos de Dios; Tan Cercas de los Estados Unidos and El Buen Pastor - were acquired by the Davenport Museum of Art in the past year and are featured in the exhibit.
The New Mexico-based Jiménez, the son of an illegal Mexican immigrant, draws on icons and pop culture - cowboys, Indians, farmers, the rodeo, and horses - from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border for his work. His mammoth sculptures frequently incorporate elements of kitsch and pop art.
"I've been fascinated with the way he blends his Americanism with his background," said Michelle Robinson, curator of the exhibit.
Jiménez doesn't like being pegged as a Chicano artist; he thinks of his work as American. The art world, he said, "has gotten very ghetto-ized." He notes that a border-crossing sculpture at Iowa State University was originally borrowed for a conference on family resiliency. And he notes that he's been commissioned to do a firefighters memorial in Cleveland.
Yet he doesn't deny the importance of where he was raised. "I grew up on the border," he said. "The way I grew up had a lot to do with my focusing on political issues. ... I wanted to work with the issues I'd grown up with."
Jiménez is of the school that believes that all art is political. Nonetheless, some of the controversy surrounding his work has bordered on the ridiculous. For instance, the public sculpture Vaquero (probably his most famous work) was rejected for two locations because the subject, a Mexican cowboy, had a gun. "No one would dream of taking away Robert E. Lee's gun or George Washington's sword," Jiménez told Texas Alcalde magazine, "but somehow the thought of a Mexican with a gun is seen as a big threat."
On other issues, Jiménez's views are more provocative. In 1997, the U.S. Marines shot and killed 18-year-old Ezekiel Hernandez, who was herding goats near his family's home in Texas. Marines, he said, are trained to shoot to kill, and having them patrolling the border in the "war on drugs" is "an accident waiting to happen."
That incident is commemorated in this show's El Buen Pastor, which translates as "The Good Shepherd." Robinson said the lithograph shows how Jiménez was able to take a contemporary event and put it in a different context by using traditional religious imagery. The artist "transforms it from a scene of slaughter to an image of Christ holding a lamb." The other lithograph in the exhibit also borrows from art history, portraying an illegal border crossing like the flight from Egypt.
Some of the controversy, Jiménez argues, comes from the American mindset. "Americans have always been very complacent and very apolitical," he said. "We want everything to be spoon-fed to us in five minutes." In that atmosphere, works meant to provoke discussion instead bring vociferous reactions.
Jiménez said he doesn't have an agenda for his Quad Cities talks. "I'll respond to what my audience is interested in," he said.
Luis Jiménez's talks are free with museum admission. The Spanish-language talk will run from 11 a.m. to noon, and the English discussion will be held from 2 to 3 p.m.