Luis Jiménez's Mustang (2008), located at Denver International Airport, was intended to be a welcoming figure as Colorado residents and visitors entered and exited the gateway to the US West. However, this particular work, along with several of Jiménez's earlier public sculptures, prompted public rancor, controversy, and protest. Jiménez is one of the most well-known Chicano public sculptors; however, little scholarly research has been conducted to examine the way in which his work functions in and is received by visitors in the public realm. Applying Harriet F. Senie's methodology of conducting visitor response interviews to examine Jiménez's public sculptures aids in an understanding of why the gap between the artist's intention and the visitor's understanding is so pervasive. Mustang subverts traditional monuments and notions of equestrian statuary in its use of nontraditional materials and subject matter. Many visitors sense the intentionally critical and historical revisionist lens through which Jiménez created his work and therefore feel daunted by it culturally, aesthetically, and spatially. This complex reaction highlights what aspects of US culture are embraced in the public sphere and which elements have received conflicted reactions due to their subject, and the representation of ethnicity in public space. In addition, the site of Jiménez's work forms a crucial part of the content; therefore, the negotiation of space, in which Mustang and some of Jiménez's other sculptures are displayed, informs the debates around installing a work in the public sphere.
RESUMEN Luis Jimenéz's Mustang (2008) located at Denver International Airport was intended to be a welcoming figure as Colorado residents and visitors entered and exited the gateway to the American West. However, this particular work along with several of Jiménez's earlier public sculptures, prompted public rancor, controversy, and protest. Jiménez is one of the most well-known Chicano public sculptors; however, little scholarly research has been conducted to examine the way in which his work functions in and is received by visitors in the public realm. Applying Harriet F. Senie's methodology of conducting visitor response interviews to examine Jiménez's public sculptures aids in an understanding on why the gap between the artist's intention and the visitor's understanding is so pervasive. Mustang subverts traditional monuments and notions of equestrian statuary in its use of non-traditional materials and subject matter. Many visitors sense the intentionally critical and historical revisionist lens through which Jiménez created his work and therefore feel daunted by it culturally, aesthetically, and spatially. This complex reaction highlights what aspects of U.S. culture is embraced in the public sphere and which elements have received conflicted reactions due to their subject, and the representation of ethnicity in public space. In addition, the site of Jiménez's work forms a crucial part of the content; therefore, the negotiation of space, in which Mustang and some of Jiménez's other sculptures are displayed informs the debates around installing a work in the public sphere.
RESUMO Mustang (2008) de Luis Jimenéz, localizado no Denver International Airport, foi concebido como uma figura acolhedora para os residentes do Colorado e visitantes que passavam pela porta de entrada para o oeste americano. Entretanto, essa obra em particular, juntamente com várias das primeiras esculturas públicas de Jiménez, provocou rancor público, controvérsia e protestos. Jiménez é um dos escultores públicos chicanos mais conhecidos; no entanto, pouca pesquisa acadêmica foi conduzida para examinar a maneira pela qual seu trabalho funciona e é recebido pelos visitantes na esfera pública. A aplicação da metodologia de Harriet F. Senie de conduzir entrevistas com visitantes para examinar as esculturas públicas de Jiménez ajuda a entender por que a lacuna entre a intenção do artista e a compreensão do visitante é tão generalizada. Mustang subverte monumentos tradicionais e noções de estatuária equestre em seu uso de materiais e temáticas não-tradicionais. Muitos visitantes percebem a lente intencionalmente revisionista crítica e historicamente através da qual Jimenéz criou seu trabalho e, assim, se sentem intimidados culturalmente, esteticamente e espacialmente. Essa complexa reação destaca quais aspectos da cultura norte-americana são adotados na esfera pública e quais elementos receberam reações conflitantes devido a sua temática, e a representação da etnia no espaço público. Ademais, o local onde se situa a obra de Jimenéz é parte crucial de seu conteúdo; portanto, a negociação do espaço, no qual Mustang e algumas das esculturas de Jimenéz são exibidas, informa o debate em torno da instalação de uma obra na esfera pública.
“Animals in the wild reveal truths about ourselves. … They remind us about a part of ourselves that we often try to hide or have forgotten.”1—Luis Jiménez
“Satan's Stallion,” “Blucifer,” “Demon Mustang,” and “Meth Horse” are just some of the colorful local nicknames that Denver citizens ascribe to Luis Jiménez's (1940–2006) public sculpture Mustang. Commissioned in 1992 and installed in 2008 along the entrance road to Denver International Airport's (DIA) main terminal, Mustang, a neo-pop, 32-foot-tall, cobalt-blue rearing horse made of fiberglass, was intended to be a welcoming figure as Colorado residents and visitors alike entered and exited the gateway to the North American West (Figure 1). However, despite its foundation in US art, history, and popular culture, this particular work became a subject of public rancor, outcry, and protest. Mustang is controversial because the sculpture is a form of cultural critique manifested through Jiménez's style and his adaptation and readjustment of popular cultural mythologies, which he explored and exhibited in much of his public oeuvre.
Jiménez's creations are a mingling of low and high art; his public works combine an epic and heroic European sculptural and painting tradition with Chicano2 lowrider car culture, which itself synthesizes painting and sculpture (Figure 2).3,Mustang in particular, with its over-round contours and expressive posture, is in dialogue with distinct periods of art history. It possesses the dynamism of the Italian Baroque, the ostentatiousness of the neo-baroque, and its neo-pop aesthetic embraces the 1960s movements of Pop Art and New Figuration.4 Jiménez's interest in the Baroque was fostered by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to travel to Rome where he, in his own words, “went crazy” for the sculptor and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680).5 Bernini's proclivity for capturing dramatic moments and creating a sense of movement are attributes that Jiménez brought to his own art. Jiménez also drew from developments in the 1930s, including the Mexican mural movement, US regionalism, and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals.6 He sought to create works that could be understood on many levels by a broad audience outside of the traditional art world, so he created objects that chronicled the history of regional US histories, much as the WPA murals, painted during the 1930s and 1940s in public buildings across the United States, had done.7
Jiménez's contributions take on added importance because he is a rare example of a Chicano sculptor whose monumental works are installed in the public sphere. Accordingly, his name has become synonymous with Chicano public sculpture. However, little scholarly research has been conducted to examine the way in which his work functions in and is received by visitors in the public realm. Art historian Harriet F. Senie early on called attention to the importance of analyzing visitor response to public artworks.8 This study is based on the methodology that she uses in her public art courses, and it is the first time it is used to understand visitor response to Jiménez's work.9 I conducted visitor response interviews with more than 150 viewers of Mustang from January 2012 to January 2016, beginning close to five years after the city installed the work. The majority of interviewees were Denver and Colorado citizens as well as mostly US visitors to DIA. By examining visitor responses to Mustang and some of Jiménez's other public sculptures through traditional and social media, this essay analyzes the gap between the artist's intention and visitor understanding, and the impact that the site of the work has on its content.
Although previous scholarship has not focused on visitor response to Jiménez's work, scholars have discussed his socio-political commentary, as well as his subject and aesthetics as a unified expression of Pop art and rasquachismo. The latter is particularly useful in framing many of the visitor responses to Mustang. Art historian Jacinto Quirarte asserted that “Jiménez focused on modern Mexican art and the social and political conditions of the United States to make forceful statements about American society.”10 Curator Lucy Lippard suggested that Jiménez's work began “where the revolutionary Mexican muralists left off” and that “the robust melodrama of Jiménez's sculptures epitomizes the Western myth for all the people that formed it.”11 In terms of Pop art, writer Dave Hickey has playfully described Jiménez's work as “High Popular Art” and “South Texas Sweet Funk.”12 Curator E. Carmen Ramos expanded on the tone of Pop that Jiménez's work reflected: “For younger artists like Luis Jiménez, pop art—especially its politicized ‘sinister pop’ variant—offered a platform from which to critique American culture from a Latino perspective.”13 Additionally, art historian Shifra Goldman pointed out that Jiménez “can be seen as an unorthodox pop artist with ‘humanist’ concerns.”14
Along with Pop, Goldman framed Jiménez's work in terms of rasquachismo even though the term came to prominence after Jiménez and other Chicano artists embraced its characteristics.15,Rasquachismo, as defined by Mexican American scholar Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, is generally “an underdog perspective—los de abajo. … It presupposes a world view of the have not, but it is a quality exemplified in objects and places and social comportments. … It has evolved as a bicultural sensibility.”16 Cultural critic Alicia Gaspar de Alba identified three degrees of rasquache. Third-degree rasquache is part of the contemporary fine art lexicon that draws from first-degree rasquachismo, which are practices rooted in popular traditions in Chicano culture.17 Rasquache as a sensibility manifests in Mustang and Jiménez's other public sculptures through his choice of color, fiberglass material, high-gloss exteriors, and subjects that both draw from his own experience as a Mexican American and resist master narratives.
Analysis of visitor response interviews and media coverage, which will be further analyzed later in this essay, reveal that many visitors sense Mustang's critical stance and therefore feel daunted by it on multiple levels including culturally, aesthetically, and spatially. Mustang, too, subverts traditional monuments and notions of equestrian statuary in its use of non-traditional materials and subject matter. The subject of a blue, rider-less horse—as opposed to a heroic equestrian sculpture, which is well-known in the public sphere—creates a tension in how viewers respond to it. Mustang and Jiménez's other works' negotiation of space and challenge to traditional aesthetics in public sculpture raises their visual profile, which distinguishes them from the perceived invisibility of many other public works and is in part what contributes to the public's attention to Mustang.18 Additionally, the significance of the commissioning process and the siting of Mustang outside of the airport—which functions as a frontier—urges an examination of the role of the US western frontier in Jiménez's public works.
Jiménez's American West
Having grown up in the borderland of the US Southwest, Jiménez was immersed in a fusion of visual symbols and signs based on the histories of two competing colonial orders of Mexico and the US expansion in the nineteenth century. An analysis of the visual precedents in Jiménez's public sculptures is needed to both uncover and investigate his contestation of stereotypes and tropes that are linked to nineteenth-century visual culture and the historical frame of the US frontier. Jiménez began a series of western themes in the 1970s that remixed North American historical tropes and drew from his personal background; he offered an alternative monumental aesthetic and a reinterpretation of hegemonic cultural narratives. Jiménez used and translated the visual language of US western art to reexamine the formation and lore of the United States and emphasized as curator Chon A. Noriega asserted that there is in actuality a “different West for every group.”19 It is this revisionism that was often misunderstood by critics and visitors to the Denver airport in general. The misreading of Mustang provides an opportunity to reflect upon this history and consider artists' roles in shaping conceptions of the US West.
The use of sculpture to document a receding American West became part of a late-nineteenth-century project that Jiménez adopted and adapted. During that time, Frederic Remington (1861–1909) was considered to be the “pictorial historian of the Great West.”20 However, Remington rendered the West as if modernization had not encroached upon the frontier. In a significant association with Colorado history, art historian Peter H. Hassrick traced some of the roots of Remington's work to the native Denver artist Alexander Phimister Proctor (1860–1950) and his plaster casts of cowboys and broncos exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, which was intended ostensibly to instill a sense of national unity within the larger goal of the fair's theme.21 After the exposition's White City closed, Proctor's The Buckaroo was transported to his hometown's Civic Center Park, where it remained for a decade until it deteriorated due to weather conditions. In response to the City Beautiful movement, the city of Denver replaced it twenty years later with Proctor's bronze Broncho Buster (installed 1920, Figure 3), which depicted a cowboy calmly controlling a wild, bucking horse.
During the Columbian Exposition, along with displaying artworks celebrating the cowboy and frontier culture, such as Proctor's sculptures and Remington's illustrations (discussed below), historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a speech, “The Frontier in American History,” in which he argued that “the growth of nationalism and the evolution of the American political institutions were dependent on the advance of the frontier.”22 He asserted that the frontier explained US history in terms of the development of its purportedly democratic institutions and individualistic character.23 Turner claimed that “the frontier is the line of the most rapid and effective Americanization,” and that the process of expansionism via the pioneers is what gave US civilization its greatness, which was celebrated by the White City.24 Turner revolved his frontier thesis solely around white men, and consequently scholars have taken Turner's ideas to task. For example, historian Greg Grandin noted that Turner glosses over the American Indian Wars and the slavery question and pointed out that Turner's frontier theory was explicitly racist.25 Historian Albert L. Hurtado emphasized that “Turner noted that literacy rates were ‘worst’ where ‘Mexican stock abounded,’ but said nothing more about Mexican or Spanish cultural contributions to the region.”26 Hurtado also explained that “few historians now accept Turner's essay at face value, but in simplified form, his ideas have seeped into the popular imagination and have proved almost impossible to uproot.”27 Turner's slanted focus on the frontier shares visual parallels that Remington portrayed in his own work.
Remington depicted the frontier and the West as a defining aspect of Americanness and he looked toward Proctor's subject and imagery as a pictorial source. Some of Remington's illustrations on view at the World's Columbian Exposition were created following a trip to Mexico, where he photographed and sketched San José de Bavicora Ranch, a US citizen–owned ranch northwest of the state of Chihuahua, and created the pen and India ink wash illustration Mexican Vaqueros Breaking a Bronc (1897, Figure 4).28 Remington described the Mexican vaquero as “a brave fellow, a fatalist, with less wants than the pony he rides, a rather thoughtless man, who lacks many virtues.”29 It should be noted that Remington did not reserve his derogatory remarks only for the Mexican cowboy. In a letter to journalist Poultney Bigelow, he also wrote disparagingly about Jews, people from China and the East Indies, and Italians, among others whom he considered “the rubbish of the earth.”30 Despite the prevailing belief that the cowboy found its origins in the British Anglo-Saxon medieval troubadours, Remington correctly held that the US cowboy actually had Mexican origins. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt, a friend of Remington, referred to this heritage in an 1888 article for Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine: “The ranching industry itself was copied from the Mexicans, of whose land and herds the South-western frontiersmen of Texas took forcible possession.”31 Despite Remington's knowledge of the Mexican roots of the US cowboy and the violence inflicted on Native Americans as a result of westward expansion, he continued to render cowboys as white and heroic, and Native Americans through stereotypical and exaggerated phenotypes as is seen in his bust The Savage (1908, Figure 5). Historian Richard White pointed out that “the West of Remington, Roosevelt, and Wister was an unabashedly masculine and nasty place, the domain of Anglo-Saxon men bent on keeping all they regarded as lesser breeds in their place.”32
Jiménez eschewed the portrait of the white cowboy and diverged from Remington's aversion to depicting contemporary technologies, thereby intending to present a comprehensive and inclusive—and for some unsettling—understanding of the history of the US West. Jiménez sought to create “a publicly accessible American art,” with the goal of correcting popular romantic misconceptions about the past, in order to redefine the nineteenth-century historical narratives and myths of the West.33,Mustang is a response to white settlement and westward expansion, and, significantly for Jiménez, his sculpture demonstrated the permeability of borders.34 The DIA Art Steering Committee circulated a call for projects that reflected Denver's geohistorical setting as a frontier within a US western context, and Jiménez responded to that by drawing attention to the complexity of borders themselves. Jiménez understood that the mustang—which by definition is a wild horse that disregards fences that delineate boundaries—might prompt a conversation around immigration and the history of the formation of national borders.35 As Noriega pointed out, “The problem with borders is that they are more or less invented or imagined, much like the communities they are designed to contain.”36 For instance, part of Colorado was originally in Mexico, until Mexico lost much of its territory to the United States as a result of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Noriega explained:
Legally, Mexicans who remained north of the new border, imposed after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), became US citizens. But in social practice and popular culture, Mexican Americans continued to be referred to as “Mexicans” up until the Chicano Civil Rights Movement (1965–1975) and have been subject to various large-scale deportation programs since the so-called repatriation of the Depression.37
Jiménez addressed the spatial politics of the border and frontier culture as both subject and site in some of his other works, including Border Crossing (1989, Figure 6). This sculpture shares a juxtaposed verticality with Pacific Native tribes' totem poles and depicts a barefoot, muscular male figure in rolled-up pants carrying a woman and baby atop his shoulders. Goldman described Border Crossing in relation to migrant workers: “Mexicans were and are considered cheap labor. … They crossed into former Mexican territory to work at the hardest and lowest-paid work and were expected to return when the work was over.”38,Border Crossing is a poignant reminder of the lived reality of the US-Mexico border, which fractiously persists in public debate. Along with the sculpture's political connotation, Goldman also highlighted its religious undertones as “reminiscent of the Holy Family crossing into Egypt.”39 Jiménez explained his visual source from a personal perspective: “The family in ‘Border Crossing’ is a very American family. ‘Border Crossing’ is a tribute to my father, who was an illegal in this country from the time he was 9 until he was 25, when I was born. I grew up in El Paso, and you would often see men carrying their wives across the border.”40 Like much of Jiménez's work, Border Crossing serves both as a reminder of the human side of the immigration debate and as a broader “symbol of human struggle.”41 Jiménez monumentalized and heroicized everyday people, including sculpted figures with dark-toned complexions, images of unsurfaced public histories, and cultural intersections in the public sphere, which US society in general is still unaccustomed to viewing.
Jiménez's Work in the Public Sphere
A sensitivity to a work's purpose in relation to its intended community is of crucial importance to Jiménez's art practice. Although Jiménez did not fully identify with the Chicano art movement, his work from this time period, particularly his attitudes toward space, spatiality, and site, share common attributes with it. Curator Rita Gonzalez explained, “The use of public space by Chicano artists developed according to a consciousness about ethics and relevance to community.”42 Chicano art is framed through the democratic media of murals, posters, and public performance art. Less often addressed in the literature is Chicano public sculpture in part due to the paucity of public commissions awarded to Chicano and Latino sculptors and the dearth of inclusive representation in public spaces. Noriega addressed the “unruly category” of Chicano art and its relation to the public: “In one sense, ‘Chicano art’ has always been a project of making an experience, community, or culture visible within public culture.”43 Jiménez facilitated carving out a public space, albeit sometimes contentious, for Chicano art.
Jiménez's public artwork interrogates the nature of public space and who has agency within that space, which has been under debate by artists, architects, urban planners, and art historians. Art historian Rosalyn Deutsche asserted, “Public art terminology frequently alludes to democracy as a form of government but also to a general democratic spirit of egalitarianism.”44 This context of supposed egalitarianism elicits questions such as “Do the [public art] works avoid ‘elitism’?” Are they ‘accessible’?”45 The issues of elitism and accessibility can be extended to concerns around hegemonic representations; i.e., who or what is represented in public space, and who creates and shapes that representation within a purportedly democratic public sphere? These questions concerning art in the public sphere are issues that Jiménez either consciously addressed or was inadvertently drawn into through public debates around the subject and siting of his sculptures. The overwrought “spatial cultural discourse”46 surrounding Mustang and some of Jiménez's other works such as Vaquero (commissioned 1977, installed 1982, Figure 7) in Houston and Southwest Pieta (1988, Figure 8) in Albuquerque in part originates from their sites.
Identification and Disidentification in
Vaquero and Southwest Pieta
Houston's Municipal Arts Commission initially planned to site Jiménez's first public sculpture commission, Vaquero, in the city's recently constructed Tranquility Park, located downtown next to City Hall.47 It depicts a Mexican cowboy wielding a gun, while controlling a blazing blue bucking horse, which resists Proctor and Remington's homogeneous depictions of white cowboys. Lippard emphasized that the sculpture serves as a “reminder that ‘Americans’ came late to the Southwest.”48 However, the desire by some Houstonians to segregate the legacy of the Mexican cowboy—and thereby the Latino presence in Houston's public space—to Moody Park, a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood, revealed implicit biases in who is included in the visuality of the public sphere.49 According to Goldman, “The city's anti-Mexican political biases delayed the installation and eventually consigned the sculpture to Moody Park in a major Mexican neighborhood.”50 The artist also believed that the sculpture was not installed at its intended site because of ethnic bias and his inclusion of a gun.51 Jiménez contended that “you wouldn't think of taking the gun away from a statue of Robert E. Lee, but a gun in the hand of a Mexican became dangerous.”52 That the prevailing attitude at the time was that a sculpture of a Confederate army commander was considered unthreatening and yet the image of a Mexican cowboy was deemed dangerous reflects prejudiced negative stereotypes that circulated during the period of the work's installation. The lack of images in the public sphere reflecting Mexican American identity added to this misconception. This perception of Mexicans with guns as menacing, instead of comprehending Jiménez's resurrection of a public history in figural form by revealing the Mexican roots of the US cowboy, is one of many disparities between the artist's intention and public understanding.
On the subject of the US cowboy and the US frontier, historian James R. Grossman pointed to the “gap between scholarly trends and popular understandings of history.”53 For example, historian Jorge Iber explained:
(T)he cowboy workforce is still often envisioned as composed primarily of men “of the purest Anglo-Saxon type, as in Owen Wister's [1902 novel] The Virginian.” Many Americans do not realize that perhaps one-third of all cowboys involved in the trail drives after the Civil War were either African American, Hispanic (on Texas ranches, Mexican American cowboys constituted around fifty percent of the workforce), or Native Americans. A large segment of our nation's populace continues to regard the cowboy as strictly “American phenomenon,” a fact borne out by television and print ads.54
Jiménez attempted to reintegrate a visual narrative of the Mexican cowboy in the United States, and he defended his position and his sculpture by explaining the inconsistency in popular culture around the US cowboy mythos. “I consider myself to be a member of the Hispanic community in Texas. It's my heritage. And I see the ‘Vaquero’ as retrieving part of the heritage that we lost. The cowboy is not a Hollywood invention, though, growing up that's what it sounded like. The vaquero is a historical figure.”55
Historian Jacqueline M. Moore explained why this heritage had often been omitted. Moore contended that there is consensus that the Anglos adapted vaquero dress, gear, skills, and terminology, but pointed out that during the post–Civil War period there is “next to no mention of vaqueros in any detail.”56 Moore thought this was due to the lack of primary sources by and about Hispanic cowboys in the historical record:
The overwhelming majority of these primary sources come from Anglo cowboys, despite the fact that many cowboys from this period were black or Hispanic. The WPA [Life Histories] narratives include a few from African American cowboys, and there are quite a few Anglo cowboy narratives that detail interaction with black cowboys, if sometimes in a racist manner. However, Hispanic cowboys seem to all but disappear from the documentary record for this period.57
However, placing this history in the public sphere was not a straightforward countermeasure to the omitted history of the American cowboy. Despite Jiménez's outreach to community members to explain Vaquero, eleven years after its installation, polemics around the work again surfaced when neighborhood organizations expressed concern over the image that Vaquero projected about the surrounding predominantly Latino neighborhood. Once Vaquero was installed within the Latino neighborhood, the ambition to combat gang violence, which was part of a larger socioeconomic factor in cities across the country, manifested in protests against the sculpture. A spokesperson for the North Central Civic Association, which spearheaded efforts to remove Vaquero in Houston, declared, “The (Moody Park) area is heavily crime-ridden, gang activity is on the increase, and the Vaquero with his pistol sends the wrong message,” and made the unsubstantiated claim that “gangs hold it in reverence.”58 Visitors disagreed whether to embrace or censor Vaquero. However, its presence impacted and exposed current issues, highlighting the multitude of conceptions that local communities possessed and desired to exhibit about themselves in the public sphere. Political scientist Nancy Fraser explained, “In theory, a public sphere is conceived as a space for the communicative generation of public opinion,” and sociologist Kate Nash added that the public sphere generally is equated with the “ideals of genuine participation in establishing the common good.”59 Vaquero, Mustang, and Jiménez's other outdoor sculptures were intended to create an inclusionary public sphere where distinct aspects of US culture and history are represented and where unanticipated debates may occur; they emboldened visitors to publicly express their often-divergent belief systems.
Vaquero was originally the target of racism in regard to its site, and its new location evolved into a place where Latino members of the community grappled with contemporary violence and issues around negative projections onto the Latino population. In addition to associations with gang activity, some perceived that the figure was an intoxicated cowboy holding aloft a bottle of alcohol (instead of a gun), which reinforced negative stereotypes of Latino individuals.60 Civic groups requested that the statue be removed, stating that it was a “poor role-model.”61 The history of public sculpture as a scapegoat for social ills is vast, and Vaquero exemplifies the categorical blame and genuine angst displaced onto public works.62
Jiménez shared connections to the subject and visitors of his works through his self-identification as a member of the Hispanic community; however, disidentification was also at play. Performance theorist José Esteban Muñoz described disidentification as “survival strategies that the minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that contentiously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship.”63 Much of the visitor responses to Vaquero, Mustang, and some of Jiménez's other public works revolved around an entanglement of cross-cultural identification and disidentification.
For instance, Southwest Pieta (see Figure 8) is another of Jiménez's public sculptures that proved to be divisive when in 1983 the Albuquerque Arts Board attempted to install it in the neighborhood of Old Town in Albuquerque, New Mexico's central district.64 The reversed gender pietà depicts a young man holding a woman. The subject is a tale of star-crossed lovers: the Nahua princess Iztaccíhuatl and warrior Popocatépetl, whose ill-found fate led to the gods' transformation of their bodies into mountains on the outskirts of contemporary Mexico City—an apt subject of Mexican American border culture. Art historian Katherine Manthorne elaborated on the sculpture, describing it as “an original statement of mestizaje, or the mixed race, that populates the Americas, suggested by the Spanish features of the male Popocatépetl and the indigenous appearance of his lover.”65 Curator Charles R. Loving explained a critical strategy in which Jiménez consciously depicted Iztaccíhuatl as cloaked—as opposed to more popular images of her, which are highly eroticized—so that the artist's “larger commentary on racial heritage” dominated the sculpture's content.66,Southwest Pieta was originally planned for the city's centrally located Tiguex Park. Once again censorship surfaced when rumors abounded that the sculpture's subject was of a Spaniard conquistador raping a Native American woman, despite Jiménez's explanation that the sculpture simply represented the love between a man and a woman, and not an act of violence.67 Some residents of the Tiguex Park area protested that they wanted Southwest Pieta banned from their neighborhood because to them it was obscene. Additionally, art critic Christine Temin explained that Southwest Pieta was unpopular with the Latino citizens of Old Town because they preferred to emphasize their Spanish origins rather than their indigenous connections.68 Even after the subject and the artist's intent were made clear, residents continued to object that the “theme was too much a part of a (foreign) Mexican tradition that was unrelated to the proposed site near Old Town,” which in actuality was originally part of a Native American Pueblo before it was a Spanish settlement.69 Martíneztown, a Mexican American neighborhood in Albuquerque, offered an alternative site, which thus was intended to relegate this legend of the Americas to a predominantly Latino neighborhood.
The Materials and Symbolism of
Mustang, too, upends long-established ideas pertaining to monuments as well as equestrian statuary in particular through its manufacturing-sourced material and its subject. Curator Charles Dee Mitchell explained that the “popular appeal” of fiberglass “rested in large part to the flawless finish it could acquire in expert hands, a quality which was then largely abhorred as an element in the fine arts.”70 The addition of color and fiberglass as a medium is also an aspect of equestrian and equine statuary that is generally absent in the public sphere and devoid of, in Jiménez's words, “the cultural baggage of marble or bronze” because it is not a conventional high art material.71 Fiberglass functioned as a liberating material for the artist, which allowed for more movement in compositions than either bronze or stone permit. In addition, Jiménez observed, “If you see one more bronze cowboy, it doesn't register anymore because you immediately classify it as a bronze cowboy. I wanted to do something that not only made you look at the cliché again, but look at it in a new way.”72 Artist Eva Sperling Cockroft noted that Jiménez's choice of materials including fiberglass and epoxy resin added a rasquache element to his Pop aesthetic and functioned as an “assault on Anglo standards of decorum and good taste.”73 In addition, the technologically advanced medium of cast fiberglass, often used in car and airplane production, related Jiménez's subject matter immediately to contemporary life. Furthermore, his subject of the mustang defined a connection to Colorado as a center for ranching and former site of more than two million wild horses that roamed the western range.
Former DIA art administrator Colleen Fanning explained, “Luis's decision for the work, a depiction of one lone mustang, is a powerful commentary on the future of America's wild horses. They once were plentiful on the land where DIA sits now.”74 Jiménez specified, “I looked at a lot of art made in the American West when I started out and it seemed our whole idea of progress was wrapped up in the notion of the killing of the beast.”75 Loving also discussed Jiménez's depiction of the feral horse and suggested that with Mustang Jiménez set aside “his typical desire to challenge misperceived histories of the various cultures found in the American West, [and] Jiménez appears to have created, instead, a visual ode to the widely admired wild mustang.”76 Despite Loving's reading, in actuality Mustang offers an expanded understanding of national and local identity through Jiménez's representation of the US western frontier by restructuring the settlement myth of the western United States. For instance, the horse was the main mode of transport related to progress during the push west, and the destruction of the frontier has itself been seen as a mark of twentieth-century progress.
Spanish invaders introduced the horse to the Americas in the late fifteenth century, and thereby transformed the ecology of the US West. The horse was related to images of conquest, and eventually was understood as an imported and imposed cultural icon of the US West. Art historian Sarah Burns explained the horse's role in the region's mythology: “Wild horses of the prairies stood for and indeed embodied the spirit of the mythic American West and, by extension, the untamed spirit of the American wilderness, the very basis of national identity as it took shape in the early nineteenth century.”77 Jiménez merged the past with the present and juxtaposed the contemporary symbol of progress, the airport, built on Colorado's Front Range with the wild, non-native animal that is now also disappearing as a result of twentieth- and twenty-first-century developments. Curator Annette DiMeo Carlozzi reminded us that Jiménez's work in relation to “the development of the West is the quintessential American subject matter, and the virtual disappearance of the wolf and buffalo [and the mustang], the evolution of the cowboy, the Indian, and the frontier, are national phenomena.”78 Jiménez's earlier work, Progress II (1976), features a blue horse with glowing eyes and, as Goldman noted, was Jiménez's “first venture into westernalia that marked a new direction in his art” (Figure 9).79 Two decades later, the artist removed the human figure to leave the muscular steed without a rider and free from the associations with laboring domesticated animals.
The Site: Airport as Frontier
The airport itself is a space of crossing, and internationally airports have developed into contemporary art spaces that exhibit works by artists such as Vito Acconci (1940–2017), Alice Aycock (b. 1946), Judy Baca (b. 1946), and Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919–1999), among others. Curator Mary Tinti asserted that “contemporary public art plays a vital role in shaping and/or defining urban spaces, and art for the airport is no different.”80 Tinti's study on airport art borrows from anthropologist Marc Augé's theory of the non-place, who describes homogenized non-places and includes sites such as railway stations, supermarkets, motorways, and, relevant to this study, airports, as places where rooted social relationships cannot establish themselves. Augé explained, “If a place can be defined as relational, historical, and concerned with identity, then a place which cannot be defined as relational, historical, and concerned with identity will be a non-place.”81 However, the planners of DIA attempted to transform the unrooted nature of the non-place associated with contemporary airport design into a location specifically pertaining to Colorado and its citizens. They added a relational element to DIA so that people might ground and establish the local identity of the area in which they reside, pass through, or visit.
The public commissioning process of Mustang is important to consider. The first Latino mayor of Denver, Federico Peña (in office 1983–1991), issued the city's Percent for Art program in 1988, which allocated 1 percent of hard construction dollars for projects budgeted at $1 million or more to be dedicated to fund public art. To support the Percent for Art model in Denver, a thirteen-member artist team submitted the “artJourneys” report to the city, which proposed incorporating art into Denver's new airport.82 The aim was to commission art that was part of the fabric of the airport's design, rather than simply including “paintings under glass.”83 Once plans for the new airport were finalized, the airport's public art program allocated a $7.5 million budget, reportedly then the largest amount spent on a single, site-specific art project in the United States.84 Its Public Art Policy explained that the purpose of the program was to “expand the opportunities of Denver residents to experience art in public places, thereby creating more visually pleasing and human environments.”85
The Commission on Art, Culture, and Film conducted a national competition for the artwork at the airport, and called for more public art commissions to be awarded to individuals the commission referred to as “minority artists.”86 In 1992, Jiménez was one of thirty-nine artists selected to create works for the new airport, which opened in 1995. One of the goals of the airport's public art program was to “make the creative energy and cultural legacy of the Rocky Mountain Front Range region palpable to anyone who visits the airport.”87 However, the program had many critics, and one committee member contended that “much of the criticism about the airport art in Denver was that it lacked the flavor of the West and the Rocky Mountain Pioneer spirit.”88
In actuality, Mustang is site-responsive because it grounds the airport in the history of Colorado as a crucial territory in the US West, juxtaposing technology and the wild.89 It is installed on a knoll at one of the highest points of the airport campus. Fanning explained, “Luis selected this location very intentionally, and intended it to be a thought-provoking icon to the history of the great American West.”90 Jiménez oriented Mustang toward Colorado Springs' Pike's Peak, one of the tallest mountains on the Front Range and named for Zebulon Montgomery Pike, a brigadier general who led explorations of the West under Thomas Jefferson.91 Significantly for Jiménez (although unknown to many of the viewers of Mustang), Pike's Peak is also where Katharine Lee Bates composed the lyrics to the patriotic song “America the Beautiful.”92
The original design from 1992 included a turn-off road from the main airport thoroughfare and a pathway from there to the sculpture with seating and lighting at Mustang's base (Figure 10).93 However, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, travelers were no longer allowed to pull up to the exact location of the sculpture. In fact, a few months prior to September 11, the airport's Architectural Review Board advised installing Mustang inside, at the south end of the terminal in order to incorporate it in the new scheme for a security screening reconfiguration (Figure 11).94 A 2001 DIA memorandum bolstered the argument for placing the work inside by asserting, “The Italians have a long history of art preservation and have even created a large and very important museum in Florence—the Bargello Palace and Museum—in which they house much of the great public sculpture that became necessary to be moved indoors. This is a striking visual experience for anyone interested in public art.”95 Another case for relocating Mustang indoors was that “if the sculpture were placed at the designated location, it would be visible only when departing the airport. When people are driving past the site, their concentration is focused on following the signs to exit or return to the Terminal. The piece is in danger of becoming another ‘drive by’ art installation at the airport.”96 Be that as it may, Denver's First Lady Wilma J. Webb (in role 1991–2003), who chaired the DIA art commission, expressed concern that horses are animals that exist in the outdoors and questioned whether the sculpture should be placed in an interior space.97 After multiple lawsuits filed by the city against Jiménez for his inability to complete the work on time, thereby failing to meet his contractual obligations, Jiménez countersued over the plans to install the sculpture inside the terminal instead of in the open air.98
Visitor Response to Mustang
Ultimately, the plan to site Mustang out of doors won out; however, due to security constraints, visitors now only view Mustang in passing while driving to or from the terminal (Figure 12). The visitor does not have the opportunity to sit and contemplate the sculpture; yet, the distanced, drive-by engagement with it has not prevented travelers from forming strong opinions about Mustang. Jiménez asserted that he wanted his work to “become an integral part of the society that surrounds it; to generate a meaningful dialogue among diverse members of the community.”99,Mustang certainly initiated discussions, but it is impossible to gauge public reception of the work when it is first installed; this can be known only after the work has time to settle.100 Even then, as observed with Vaquero in Houston and Southwest Pieta in Albuquerque, assessments and impressions about a public work can change depending on the current sociopolitical landscape. In this study, multiple data sources were employed to understand visitor response to the artwork, including news media coverage, social media, surveys, and interviews conducted by this author with DIA arts administrators, and visitors. Notably, 15 percent of respondents to DIA's “Collection and Program Assessment” survey cite Mustang as “the second-most remembered element” of the airport design as well as “the most remarked upon artwork.”101 Many of the negative responses to the work are directly related to its history as an object, a perceived aesthetic cultural disparity, along with the heightened anxiety and increased frustration around the realities of post-9/11 air travel. The sculpture is the one element of the airport's design that most people wanted to change.102
The majority of visitors were unaware of the artist's name, yet the story of Mustang's link to Jiménez's untimely passing was well known (Figure 13). In 2006, while completing the commission at his studio in Hondo, New Mexico, he was killed when an unsecured piece of the 9,000-pound sculpture fell on him. His family arranged for the sculpture's completion, and DIA installed it posthumously two years later.103 Part of the local public's problem with Mustang stems from its connection to Jiménez's grievous death.104 The history of the work itself in numerous instances led visitors to believe that the sculpture is cursed. This misconception, along with an aversion to the sculpture's aesthetics and a misreading of Jiménez's intention, inspired Denver citizens such as Rachel Hultin to create the website Bye Bye Blue Mustang and a Facebook Page titled “DIA's Heinous Blue Mustang Has Got to Go” to encourage others to mobilize around the removal of the sculpture. In 2009, Hultin had 7,600 followers on her Facebook Page.105
The adjectives critics apply to describe Mustang are severe and are often unwittingly a reaction to the rasquache sensibility in Jiménez's work. For example, transportation scholars Paul Stephen Dempsey, Andrew R. Goetz, and Joseph S. Szyliowicz argued that the sculpture is “questionable,” “garish,” and “anemic.”106 Other visitors from Colorado and midwestern states suggested that the color was not handled appropriately due to the lack of realism and perceived extravagance in applying a “flashy blue” hue to depict a horse. In fact, an airport official lamented that the horse was blue and asked Jiménez if he could paint the sculpture a neutral (horse-like) color. Jiménez facetiously responded, “If you like, I can paint it pink.”107 Jiménez in part derived his bright color palette from his father, who worked in neon as a sign maker in El Paso, Texas.108 The artist explained his color choices: “People have asked me if I choose garish colors for their shock value, but I like those colors. It has to do with personal taste, and that varies from culture to culture.”109 The idea of taste in relation to culture is critical for understanding Mustang and viewers' reactions to it. Ybarra-Frausto's description of some of the formal elements of rasquachismo elucidates the relationship to aesthetics and taste: “Bright colors (chillantes) are preferred to somber, high intensity to low, the shimmering and sparkling over the mute and subdued. … Ornamentation and elaboration prevail and are joined with a delight in texture and sensuous surfaces.”110 Mustang and Jiménez's other public sculptures embrace an aesthetic of rasquachismo through their intense blazing colors, highly polished exteriors, and fiberglass material.
The disparity between perceiving the color of Mustang as overwrought rather than as pertaining to some of the visual qualities of rasquachismo, which is often precluded in public sculpture, is part of the aesthetic with which visitors grapple. An unfamiliar aesthetic such as rasquachismo can be jolting for some viewers. Art historian Holly Barnet-Sanchez expounded on rasquache's reception and explained that rasquachismo provides
the tools for connecting form, content, and context in an interplay that bounce back and forth among artist, community, work of art, and individual viewer. As a result, these concepts can also be instrumental for understanding processes of reception such as the often-instant recognition of Chicano/a art within Chicano/a communities, and its relative inaccessibility for—and frequent misrepresentation by—numerous critics throughout the Americas.111
The inaccessibility evident within the responses around Mustang is revealed in the vocabulary that many visitors used to describe Mustang such as “garish” and “gaudy.” The adverse opinions around Mustang were mostly generated by US-based travelers and residents. Central American and European travelers to Denver generally did not have a negative reaction to the work and expressed no such discomfort.112
The unease around and misinterpretation of Mustang extended from the aesthetics to the subject itself. Dempsey, Goetz, and Szyliowicz observed, “If the airport wishes to celebrate Denver's football team, the Broncos, a Remington-type pioneer riding a bucking bronco might be more tasteful.”113 This desire to remove Mustang—in favor of a work such as a Remington-inspired pioneer in contemporary public space—speaks to how Turner's Frontier thesis and Remington's representations of the West are so ingrained within ideas on how Western expansion narratives should be represented. Comments such as these from visitors also allude to what Cockroft referred to as a desire for Anglo standards of good taste.114 Artist Amalia Mesa-Bains expanded on this relationship to Anglo suppositions: “rasquachismo is an obvious and internally defined tool of artists-activists. The intention was to provoke the accepted ‘superior’ norms of Anglo-American with the everyday reality of Chicano cultural practices. … This dual function of resistance and affirmation are essential to the sensibility of rasquachismo.”115 These visitor responses are reflections of particular cultural tastes—as Jiménez, Cockroft, and Mesa-Bains attest to—and in part originate from overarching expectations of dominant public sculptural forms, such as the bronze equestrian and equine statues that Jiménez resisted against. The lack of the cowboy or heroic figure—indeed the absence of any human presence—elicited adverse reactions like that of the transportation scholars.
Excluded and included elements of the sculpture prompted additional negative responses from many viewers. A troubling detail for visitors was the sculpture's glowing eyes, despite Jiménez's intention of including this detail to “ward off the evil spirits.”116 The eyes sparked a slew of unfavorable emotional descriptors, such as “eerie,” “creepy,” “angry,” “unwelcoming,” “scary,” and “terrifying.” The origins of the eyes harken back to Jiménez's own life experience with commercial sign making and Pop Art practice. When he was sixteen years old, he and his father made a 20-foot tall horse head with eyes that lit up for a drive-in movie theater. In addition to the sculpture's luminous eyes, many parents from Colorado and other regions cited the unseemliness of an anatomically correct mustang. Despite its realism, they believed that the figure's genitals were an inappropriate detail. However, this aspect of the sculpture contrasts with Jiménez's conscious exclusion of reproductive organs in other sculptures of animals, such as the domesticated oxen in Sodbuster (1980, Figure 14), and emphasizes the very nature of the mustang: an animal who has not been castrated and therefore is feral and untamed, which links it to notions about the wild spirit of the US West.
It is critical to understand that some of these responses focus on aesthetics and subject, whereas others reflect directly upon the work's relationship to the site, whether it is Denver in general or the connection to the airport. As with many public projects, viewers often invoked Mustang as a symbol for the squandering of public funds.117 Nevertheless, there are supporters of the sculpture. At the dedication ceremony Denver's mayor, John Hickenlooper (mayor 2003–2011 and Colorado governor 2011–2019), stated, “Not only is it [Jiménez's] largest sculpture, but I think it's also his most powerful sculpture in that sense that it has so much energy that is controlled within it.”118 Facebook Pages proliferated with lively names such as “Blue Mustang - Defending Denver from Feebleminded Philistines,” and Westword, a local weekly paper, even distributed a “Dress Your Own Mustang Paper Doll” cut-out on its blog. Importantly, the sculpture's detractors and defenders both used some of the same adjectives to describe the work, including “tacky,” “irreverent,” and “out of place.” One Denver resident in her forties who traveled from DIA several times a year described Mustang as wonderful and welcoming, and a Denver-based flight attendant in her thirties who experienced the work on a weekly basis emphasized that everything about it was horribly “gaudy” and “wrong,” which was actually why she advocated for maintaining Mustang at DIA.
As Jiménez claimed, animals in the wild reveal a truth about ourselves, and Mustang, a representation of the untamed horse, reveals visitors' visions of their city, ingrained cultural tastes, fears, and expectations of what should be represented in their public spaces. Jiménez's work brings to the fore histories and aesthetics that have been rarely expressed in monumental, sculptural form. The artist pushed the boundaries of subject, medium, aesthetics, and site beyond conventional notions of public sculpture. He inverted familiar images to explore multiple histories by upending a horse, reversing traditional gender roles in a pietà, and re-framing the spirit of the Wild West.
When artists include sensibilities, such as rasquache—or the myriad expressions of Latinx art and other communities that have been underrepresented in the visuality of the public sphere—in sanctioned public sculptures that address inclusive histories, visitors may learn how to inquire about the meaning of an object rather than questioning and protesting the work itself. Although socially engaged art brings multiple perspectives into the public sphere, as with the Chicano mural movement and performance practices, single object sculpture can also offer alternatives to the medium that perpetuate the dominating narrative—most clearly represented by equestrian statues, which principally immortalize individual white males, and many of which have now become part of an amplified and tempestuous debate.119
Denver's Public Art Program mandates that a public artwork must remain in place for five years until the city will accept petitions for its removal. Debates about whether Mustang should be removed came to the fore again in 2013 at the approach of the fifth anniversary of its installation, and the sculpture once more became part of a public outcry, fed by social media and local news outlets. Public art needs time to settle. By 2012 Mustang, along with being the aspect of the airport that most visitors wanted to change, was also one of many visitors' favorite artworks.120 Although public sculpture frequently remains invisible in the public sphere, Mustang is one of the most highly discussed artworks in Denver. Throughout DIA, on the airport's shuttle, in cabs to and from the airport, and throughout the city of Denver at restaurants, bars, grocery store checkout counters, and beyond, Jiménez's artwork creates discursive spaces, which “foster negotiation and debate, polarize and politicize space, and invite discussion fraught with contradictory views.”121 In the case of Mustang, discursive spaces arise in the physical realm at community meetings and unplanned encounters mentioned above, the circulating tracts of newspapers, and virtually on the internet. Mustang's resistance to hegemonic histories, site-responsiveness, and rasquache sensibility emphasize that there are indeed what Noriega identified as “many wests.”122 These multiple versions of the US West go well beyond the Turnerian construction, and represent lands which Americans call home and from and to which they travel.123 Jiménez's works function as gauges for what members of the community value and Mustang achieves what one might hope from public art: it provokes, it beguiles, and it encourages conversation among those who may not generally be exposed to contemporary art practices. For the moment, Mustang remains anything but invisible as it stands at the gateway to the US American West.