Horse Sense

Informative text panels explain the connection between Jimenez's skull portraits and the imagery of the Dia de los Muertos observed in Latin America. The panels don't explain, though, that the Day of the Dead is a commemoration of the Catholic feast of All Souls' Day that roughly corresponds to the American Halloween. Like Halloween, the Dia de los Muertos is a raucous celebration. But unlike Halloween, it's a time to reflect on those who have died and includes, among the devout, prayers to relieve the suffering of those in Hell and Purgatory. Its imagery is an earthy mix of the sacred and the profane--exactly the combo Jimenez relies on throughout this show.

Born to a prominent Mexican-American family in El Paso, Jimenez was exposed to Hispanic religious folk art at an early age. He had an even more personal connection to the pop-cultural influences that would later become central to his artwork--his father operated a successful neon-sign company. Jimenez studied his craft at the University of Texas, where he was exposed to traditional Western art, and later at the Ciudad Universitaria in Mexico City, where he absorbed the influence of pre-Columbian art as well as that of the great Mexican muralists, including Diego Rivera.

Jimenez's disparate influences are evident in works like "Self Portrait," which shows the artist's head as a skull. Many of the pieces in the show, even older works that are unrelated to Jimenez's vision problems, take up morbid topics. In two older pieces, a lithograph and a fiberglass sculpture from 1983 both titled "Southwestern Pieta," Jimenez has reversed the classic pose of Christ lying dead in the lap of the Virgin Mary. In Jimenez's adaptation, a dead woman lies in the arms of a bare-chested Indian. Jimenez has written that such works were inspired by the kitschy calendars that Mexican-American businesses like his father's used as promotional giveaways. Their florid and romantic depictions of the twilight of the Aztecs made a lasting impression on the young boy.

Some of the most compelling pieces in the Museo exhibit are the prints that draw an arcane and mysterious connection between prostitution and death. "A Galope," an etching from the 1991 "Entre la Puta y la Muerte" series, shows a female skeleton adorned with hair and breasts riding a galloping horse, while "El Borracho," a two-panel lithograph from 1992, pairs a drunk with a prostitute who's turned into a skeleton. In "Flirt With Death," a lithograph from 1985, Jimenez captures a street scene at night. A soldier, part living human and part skeleton, leans against a wall topped with barbed wire, holding a rifle and a cigarette. He's talking with a corpulent prostitute who's wearing a lewd and revealing dress made from an American flag.

The many dynamic prints in the exhibit underscore the fact that, while Jimenez is known principally as a sculptor, he's a whiz at drawing. And despite its pervasive focus on death and the dark side of life, Luis Jimenez in Black and White is quite beautiful.

Luis Jimenez in Black and White, through March 22 at the Museo de las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive, 571-4401.

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