Good public art ought to illuminate, delight, displease and confront us. It ought to show us something about our city, our culture and our lives. It ought not to simply fade into the built landscape, and it shouldn't be kitschy or emotionless. It's perfectly OK for a sculpture to be merely decorative -- Starr Kempf's magnificently engineered, gracefully alive metal structures are endlessly delightful -- but if all you want is perfect form, you might as well buy a Michael Graves-designed teapot at Target.
A few years ago, the Fine Arts Center decided to convert the portion of its grounds that borders Cascade Avenue into a sculpture garden. What had been a pleasant enough patch of greenery, complete with a pair of uncomfortable concrete benches, became a showcase for the leaden creations of some of the Southwest's leading schlockmeisters. There was a covey of enormous stainless steel birds, no less than two three-packs of Hopi basket dancers, a vaguely Native American type banging a drum. You get the picture.
Yet things change, and sometimes for the better. The giant stainless steel birds took flight from their roost in the sculpture garden, to be replaced by Luis Jimenez's 1991 masterpiece, "Fiesta Jarabe." Be grateful to Springs native and Denver resident Pru Grant, who memorialized her Colorado Springs family with this extraordinary gift to all of us. Thanks to Pru, we now have an outdoor sculpture worth gawking at, a spectacular and wonderful piece of public art.
"Fiesta Jarabe" depicts two Mexican-Americans, man and woman, dancing the jarabe. It's larger-than-life-size (each figure is about 10 feet tall), and executed in fiberglass-reinforced polyester, colored in bright urethanes. The dancers are clearly working-class folks, powerful, confident, sexual human beings. It's swirlingly alive, as edgy and vibrant as a Cinco de Mayo street fair in El Paso. Among its stodgy, contentless neighbors in the sculpture garden, it stands out like a low rider among minivans. It celebrates a culture that has long been ignored or belittled -- most recently, with the passage of the shameful English-only amendment to the state constitution a decade ago.
Luis Jimenez, arguably our greatest living sculptor, was born in El Paso in 1940. He grew up with art -- not the tame drawing-room stuff that passed for art in most '40s households, but with the shimmering creations of his father, a nationally known neon sign maker. Jimenez studied architecture at Texas Western (now UTEP), abandoned it, went to Mexico City to work with Francisco Zuniga, and thence to New York, where he apprenticed himself to the sculptor Seymour Lipton. In 1971, Jimenez returned to the Southwest, to New Mexico, where he still resides.
In New Mexico, Jimenez began the process that would culminate in works such as "Fiesta Jarabe" and his acknowledged masterpiece "Southwestern Pieta." In 1976, collaborating with his then 15-year-old daughter Elisa, he created an image of the Aztec lovers, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, on the side of a customized van. It's an image that, to Jimenez, embodies what was lost when European culture overwhelmed native America. Taking the traditional Christian image of the Pieta, Mary cradling the body of the crucified Christ, Jimenez moved it to a different culture, a different time. Eventually, he would use the image from the van as the basis for the sculpture "Southwestern Pieta," now part of Albuquerque's superb collection of public art.
But Jimenez's art, while it may mourn the past, celebrates the present. The fiesta dancers, with their striking aquiline features, perfectly represent our own racially mixed heritage: African, Anglo, Hispanic and Native American. As Jimenez has said, "To proclaim a kind of ethnic purity flies in the face of reality. We all got mixed up a long time ago." Jimenez is more than an artist; like the revisionist historian Patricia Limerick, his work forces us to re-examine our comforting preconceptions about the West. Compare the reality and immediacy of his dancers to the Hank the Cowboy, a Chamber of Commerce/Gazette--sponsored advertisement cast in bronze.
Pru Grant, thanks! You've given us a great piece of art, one that will delight and illuminate our city. And to the FAC, a suggestion: Relocate William Zorach's fine and historic 1964 "Family," now uncomfortably perched on the edge of the parking lot, to the place of honor now occupied by Glenna Goodacre's "Basket Dancers." Then you'd have an outdoor sculpture garden as fine as the interior garden, with its Frank Mechau murals and Northwest Totem Pole.
And for all of you who liked the big stainless steel birds (which, after all, had a certain antic charm), don't fret. They'll be perched a couple of blocks south, in the pocket park at the intersection of Mesa, Monument and Cascade.