Longform

After five years, it might be time for "Mustang" to mosey on

The most talked-about piece of public art at Denver International Airport kicked up plenty of discussion even before it was installed on February 11, 2008.

DIA was still years from opening when the city's blue-ribbon arts panel gave a $300,000 commission to Luis Jiménez to create "Mustang," a 32-foot-high fiberglass horse that would become part of a thirty-plus piece, $7 million art collection funded by the city's One Percent for Art program. Airport commissions went to dozens of artists, some local — including Gary Sweeney, then a baggage handler for Continental who created "America, Why I Love Her" with postcards from tourists attractions across the country — and some international.

Although Jiménez lived in neighboring New Mexico, he fell into the latter category. Born in El Paso, he'd studied art formally at the University of Texas in Austin — and informally at his father's neon-sign studio — and was known for creating colorful fiberglass sculptures with a Southwestern flair. His proposal for the massive "Mustang" with glowing red eyes was based on the eight-foot-high "Mesteño (Mustang)" that's now part of the University of Oklahoma collection; it recalled the days when mustangs ran wild on the prairies, and also this area's Hispanic heritage.

Download your own "Mustang" paper doll.

"He was such an icon, and at a time when there weren't a lot of artists," remembers Patty Ortiz, now a museum director in San Antonio who was also tapped for that first round of commissions. (Those are her airplanes circling overhead as you get off the train in Jeppesen Terminal.) "He pushed that boundary and was accepted in the mainstream art world — not just doing what you would think of as Chicano art, but doing quality work that was accepted all over the country."

But he didn't do that work quickly. Jiménez took his time with "Mustang," inspiring numerous threats and actual lawsuits from the city. By the time the sculpture was finally installed — twelve years late and thirteen years after DIA opened — its price had doubled, to $650,000. And it had also cost the life of Jiménez, who was killed in 2006 when a piece of the 9,000-pound sculpture fell on the 65-year-old artist while he was working on it in his studio, severing an artery in his leg. He bled to death.

And that's when blue horse's devilish reputation really took off.

See also:
- "Mustang" isn't the only controversial public art in Colorado
- An ode to DIA's beleaguered blue horse
- Ten other notable pieces of Colorado public art
- Denver Broncos and "Mustang" -- a match made in hell

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Even before Denver International Airport opened in 1995, the project had inspired numerous conspiracy theories. It was located on an Indian burial ground; the ill-fated baggage system just masked the fact that underground tunnels were being built to create a sort of Noah's Ark to protect the chosen when the world went to hell in a handbasket, or to house prisoners in a global concentration camp — take your pick. George Noory's crackpot Coast to Coast devoted an entire four-hour show to DIA in June 2007, much of it focusing on the New World Order, a fiendish, autonomous, behind-the-scenes government that manipulates global events. As evidence that the airport was a New World Order stalking horse, a caller pointed to the New World Airport Commission that had been set up in 1990 to handle opening festivities for the airport. "Denver is scheduled to be the Western headquarters of the US New World Order during martial law takeover," David Icke, a former BBC personality, wrote in his 1999 book, The Biggest Secret. "Other contacts who have been underground at the Denver Airport claim that there are large numbers of human slaves, many of them children, working there under the control of the reptilians."

But the pieces that really sparked conspiracy theorists were two murals by Leo Tanguma, "In Peace and Harmony With Nature" and "The Children of the World Dream of Peace." Tanguma, a Denver artist who spent three years creating the 28-foot murals, thought that one showed how humans can destroy nature and themselves through genocide; the second showed humanity coming together to rehabilitate nature. "I'm not part of any conspiracy whatsoever," he told Westword in 2007, when dozens of websites were already devoted to the Denver airport conspiracies. "I mean, it's weird to be saying that. In general, this is about humanity. What could they find bad about this?"

While Tanguma was defending his work, Jiménez's family was finishing his, "to pay honor to his memory," says Matt Chasansky, now the director of the Art and Culture Program at DIA.

And also, perhaps, to avoid having to pay the City of Denver for failure to deliver on a contract.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun