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ART REVIEW : Sculpture Dances on Edge of U.S. and Mexico : Luis Jimenez's 'Fiesta-Jarabe' combines cultural symbolism and Mexican pride just 10 feet over the American side of the border.


SAN DIEGO — When Luis Jimenez installed his latest fiberglass sculpture, "Fiesta-Jarabe," at the Otay Mesa Border Station just southwest of San Diego Friday morning, he tread deftly on more than one borderline--literally and metaphorically.

The eight-foot-tall sculpture depicts a Mexican couple dancing a traditional hat dance, and it stands just 10 feet north of the border between Mexico and the United States in a plaza that is actually just a few feet south--and outside of--the official border crossing.

The sculpture is the first greeting into the United States for many migrant workers and immigrants, the primary users of the Otay Mesa pedestrian crossing. It is both heartwarming and somewhat ironic that as the Mexican citizens approach the immigration officers--who are known to often be hostile to them--the travelers first see a very sensual, colorful and unintimidating homage to Mexican culture, a sculpture made by a Mexican-American artist and paid for by the U.S. government.

The work is a $57,000 commission by the General Services Administration, part of the fine-arts program that allocates one-half of 1% of the construction value of new government buildings to be used for art. The Otay Mesa Border Station was completed in 1984. Jimenez was invited to participate in the project in 1986, and his challenge was to create a sculpture specifically for the station's nondescript small concrete-paved plaza.

The site's only asset is its visibility--it is right in the line of foot traffic and can be easily seen from the lines of cars waiting to cross the border into the United States--but the harshness of the otherwise unadorned plaza, which serves as an entry to the concrete and metal architecture of the border station, would have been wildly unsympathetic to a less traditional piece of sculpture.

Among the many strengths of Jimenez's work is its subtle, almost subversive appearance of accommodation, but as with many of his earlier public works, the traditional, straightforward appearance of "Fiesta-Jarabe" can be deceptive. On its surface, the work seems innocent enough. Just two dancers. But on a deeper level, the work portrays a Latino nationalistic pride that also heroicizes sensuality. It is a vision that is both unusual and refreshing to see on such a site.

Different from some of Jimenez's earlier work, such as the 1989 "Border Crossing" in MacArthur Park, which depicts a man carrying a woman and a baby on his back and clearly empathizes with the plight of immigrants, Jimenez created "Fiesta-Jarabe" to walk a thin line between traditional and modern, spiritual and sensual, indigenous and universal. It is this subtle blend of messages that makes the work so powerful, and so valuable--particularly at a border station already charged with political and social powers.

Born in El Paso of Mexican ancestry, Jimenez chose a theme that encapsulates the U.S.-Mexico border region's multiculturalism: The mestizo mix of Spanish and Indian are embodied in this colorful and not-so-innocent looking couple. The swarthy fellow is dressed in a dark green Caballero costume--a cowboy on the dance floor--and his partner wears skintight flamenco flounces, a derivation of the Spanish equivalent.

Jimenez's couple is timeless--both ageless and neither modern nor clearly historical. And the figures' archetypal stances--his machismo, her taunting sexuality--are a face-off across a divisive gender gap. The hat dance--known as a jarabe --that absorbs them is both traditional and as fresh as any newly ignited love affair, but it also epitomizes a long tradition of mixing both folk and fine art, a practice that Jimenez uses in his own art as well in his use of modeled clay images cast in molded fiberglass and in his combination of art historical influences and low-rider style.

On another level entirely, though, the work also treads a fine line between the known and the unknown. For both the Mexican and the U.S. citizen, the sculpture's subject is familiar--it may be high art, placed symbolically up on a 4-foot-high pedestal, but on at least a surface level, the sculpture's combination of cultural symbolism and Mexican pride is accessible to anyone.

The work is a credit to the GSA art program and a symbol that we've come a long way since the days when the Spanish language was forbidden in schoolyards, days the 51-year-old artist has said he remembers from his youth.

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