It has been called an apocalyptic hell beast—equally demonic, heinous, and frightening. Will Denver ever warm to the city's most controversial piece of public art?
Blue Mustang, a gleaming, blue, fiberglass beast rearing 32 feet high, rippling with muscles, ribs, veins, and salient masculinity, crowned with a spiked mane and pierced by glowing ruby eyes, has stood for more than a year on the low hill where Peña Boulevard reaches Denver International Airport. The work, by Luis Jiménez, has generated simmering controversy ever since it was unveiled, and the debate recently exploded in the media, earning coverage as far away as Canada and France. You can thank my wife, Rachel Hultin, for the global argument.
It began in January, when Rachel created a Facebook group for people who wanted to remove Mustang from its location outside the Denver airport. The page, simple and short, is titled "DIA's Heinous Blue Mustang Has Got to Go," and explains that Rachel is "mortified and offended" by the horse, which is the "least welcoming public art exhibit imaginable." Rachel also joked on the page, "Maybe if we drum up enough people we can go push the thing over in the middle of the night as an act of civic duty." She didn't have much expectation for it. A Facebook page is usually a shout into the winds of indifference. If you're lucky, a few faint calls of encouragement come back.
But to Rachel's shock, her group quickly began drumming up support, adding nearly 300 members in a week. Now excited, she posted a haiku challenge to the group—she would personally deliver all submitted poems about Mustang to the city's Office of Cultural Affairs. She was a little surprised when she actually got submissions. She knew someone at the Denver Daily News, so she asked if the newspaper would consider printing a few poems. Instead, a reporter called back for an interview.
The Daily News ran an article the next day, and the snowball started rolling. I happened to be out of town, so the blow-by-blow came to me over the next 48 hours in increasingly nervous e-mails and phone calls from Rachel, as the coverage spread to local TV, radio, and the Internet and was picked up by the Rocky Mountain News, Westword, Viva, 9-News, 7-News, KOA, KCFR, and others. The media splash rippled far outward, generating articles by the New York Times, the Associated Press, and MSNBC. At one point, Rachel called me, her voice unsteady: "It just picked up on the CNN.com news feed." The following weekend, I had the surreal experience of picking up the Wall Street Journal in Portland, Oregon, and seeing my wife's face rendered in the paper's iconic stippled style.
The national coverage inspired further paroxysms in the Denver media. Mike Rosen penned an anti-Mustang column in the Rocky ("I'll confess that my layman's tastes favor the traditional, the grand, the uplifting, and the tasteful," he said.) Denver city councilman Charlie Brown penned responses in favor of Mustang in the Rocky and the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, as I write this, Rachel's Facebook group has collected more than 10,000 members.
Much of the public argument so far fits into two themes: Those who support Mustang are snobbish elitists, and those opposed to it are idiotic philistines. (The hate mail Rachel has received has also included some curious variations, accusing her of being a right-wing Christian fundamentalist crusader bent on imposing biblical beliefs, or that she's a lefty plotting to replace Mustang with a statue of President Obama.) This ad hominem attack and counterattack is disappointing and does little to address the art itself.
The tone of the discussion obscures the subtlety that lies between the poles of (A) love Mustang versus (B) hate Mustang. Rachel's position is actually (C) Mustang is a challenging, aggressive work—she has told interviewers that she finds it unpleasant to look at but not necessarily an artistic failure—deserving a location where the viewer can actually spend some time with it, examining it from different angles, observing its place in the landscape. Instead, it's stuck between curving highway lanes, impossible to approach on foot, viewable only from a car window as you pass at 45 mph.