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An ode to DIA's beleaguered blue horse

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When "Mustang" was erected on a patch of dirt outside Denver International Airport in February 2008, you could almost hear the residents of Colorado exclaiming in unison, "What is that thing?" Just what was this massive, bright-blue, anatomically in-your-face horse sculpture with demon red eyes doing in sunny, charming Denver?

I certainly asked that question. As a Colorado native, I was embarrassed that this devil horse was one of the first things visitors to this state would see when they got here and one of the last images they'd have as they left. It was hideous, and also inappropriate for the airport. Air travel was stressful enough before 9/11, but it became absolutely nerve-racking after that day. The last thing people needed was this monstrous specter of death leering at them as they raced toward a place already fraught with fear.

But I've changed my mind. Completely. Here's why.

See also:
- After five years, it might be time for "Mustang" to mosey on
- "Mustang" isn't the only controversial public art in Colorado
- Ten other notable pieces of Colorado public art
- Denver Broncos and "Mustang" -- a match made in hell

1. Artists do something that the rest of us can't. They create beauty and ugliness, passion and pain — and they put it out there for us to see and to interact with, each in our own way. For congressmen, this means nothing. But for artists and those who appreciate them, it means everything. That's why the people who create sometimes do so at their own risk, putting their health, their happiness, their homes on the line. Luis Jiménez did the same. He put his heart and his soul — and eventually his life — into creating this sculpture. That's hard to ignore.

2. It gets people talking — about art, and about Denver's Public Art Program, which Mayor Federico Peña created 25 years ago. The city's collection now includes more than 320 pieces, plus another thirty at the airport, that weren't here before then. And even with all that new art — sculptures, installations, murals — people probably talk more about "Mustang" than any other piece. Perhaps more than all of them combined. That's awesome, and it provides a cultural distraction for us when the Broncos lose. Artwork that got ignored, rather than getting attention, would be far worse.

3. It wasn't a safe choice. Art doesn't happen on a schedule, and it isn't created in committee meetings (usually). Public policy? Sure. Art? No. But government agencies — whether city or state, school district or local library — have a tendency to batter ideas and inspiration to a pulp with focus groups, politics, committees and bureaucratic rules. Government workers are often scared (sometimes understandably), even terrified, of public perception, civic backlash, curmudgeonly gadflies, bossy partisans, the media (who?) and other squeaky interest groups that all pour molasses on the already sticky wheels of democracy. So they take the safe way out, the easy way, finding the lowest common denominator that has the best chance of angering the fewest people. Not so with "Mustang." Somehow, either by design or by accident, the city took a risk — and that is a very, very good thing.

4. There is more to "Mustang" than meets the eye. I first learned that by reading Westword art critic Michael Paglia, who explained that the 32-foot sculpture wasn't just created on a whim by some hack. It combines a "sophisticated neo-pop style" with a decades-old artistic movement that incorporates elements of the classic "heroic Western sculpture tradition with the sensibility of Chicano lowrider culture," Paglia wrote. In fact, Jiménez's sensibility dates back to when he was a boy in the 1950s growing up in Texas and New Mexico, watching his father, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, work as a neon-sign maker. Later, after working on cars for many years, Jiménez made fiberglass his preferred medium. Then, from his New York Times obituary, I learned that "Mr. Jiménez's massive fiberglass objects, depicting Hispanic and Native American dancers, cowboys and barrio workers with contorted faces and neon-colored, spray-painted clothing, are displayed prominently in public places and museums across the Southwest." One of them is even part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art.

5. It really does embody its location on the plains and in Denver history. Have you ever been on your way to the airport when a massive, tornado-thick storm rolled over the prairie, covering the sun with purple-gray clouds that seem out of this world? How about during a driving snowstorm, when you can't see a foot in front of your headlights but there are semi-trucks on all sides of you on I-70? It makes you want to escape to the safety of your heated, sturdy home or office. Now imagine the prairie as it was a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago, when Native American tribes and pioneers, ranchers and mountain men were trying to make a life out here, without any modern conveniences. "Mustang" represents how wild, how tough and how terrifying those storms would have seemed then, and how wild and tough those people had to be to survive those times.

Now look at the statue again.

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