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Sculptor Luis Jimenez, shown in March 2003 at his Hondo, N.M., studio with the maquette version of “Mustang” along with the larger piece commissioned for display at Denver International Airport. (AP Photo/Dick George via The Corpus Christi Caller-Times)
Sculptor Luis Jimenez, shown in March 2003 at his Hondo, N.M., studio with the maquette version of “Mustang” along with the larger piece commissioned for display at Denver International Airport. (AP Photo/Dick George via The Corpus Christi Caller-Times)
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A red-eyed sculpture of a cobalt horse rearing majestically in front of Denver International Airport is having a real pop-culture moment.

The timing may be accidental, but tributes have been trickling into Colorado ahead of the 13th birthday of “Mustang,” late artist Luis Jimenez’s iconic blue horse sculpture that debuted at Denver International Airport on Feb. 11, 2008.

There’s the 2021 StokerCon anthology, announced this week from Denver-based Hex Publishers, a horror fiction anthology dedicated to “Mustang,” though most Denverites may not even know that’s the sculpture’s real name. For most, he goes by Blucifer, the apocalyptic, unofficial nickname for the 32-foot-tall, 9,000-pound sculpture.

He also appears in the new comic book “The Department of Truth,” from former “Batman” writer James Tynion IV, a conspiracy-minded series on Image Comics that taps into Denver International Airport’s (DIA’s) history of fringe lore — and that prominently features a Page 1 take on “Mustang” in all its silhouetted glory.

And then there are the countless TV shows, travel guides, magazines, podcasts and other media that continue to fold “Mustang” into stories about Denver’s identity. The electrified nature of the sculpture — its eyes shine at night, one of Jimenez’ artistic signatures — and the fact that it fell on and killed its creator during fabrication in 2006 have supplied endless lore for storytellers.

Depictions of “Mustang” span comics and literature, bathroom stall stickers and band T-shirts. But there’s a good reason why we’ve only seen Blucifer — and, to a lesser extent, accurate depictions of the real “Mustang” — as unlicensed, small-scale riffs over the years. According to the artist’s estate, the demonic interpretation is not only disrespectful but divorced from the sculpture’s original meaning.

Susan Jimenez, Luis’ widow and the sole trustee of his estate, hardly ever approves “Mustang’s” officially licensed use, despite regular requests. One can understand why she doesn’t find the notion of Blucifer all that funny, given that it’s inspired by the accident that killed her husband. Luis died on June 13, 2006, when one of three pieces from “Mustang” being moved from his studio came loose and pinned him against a steel support, severing an artery, according to The New York Times. He was 65.

After overseeing the completion of the piece, Susan Jimenez has spent much of her time keeping tabs on how “Mustang” is depicted, among other legacy-tending projects for her late husband’s sprawling, internationally acclaimed body of work.

“It’s kind of what happens with estates, I’ve learned,” she said over the phone from her home in Hondo, N.M., this week. “I was reading that Picasso’s estate spends a lot of their time correcting pirated copies of things. Really, my main concern is not commercializing the image.”

DIA has carefully harnessed the energy around “Mustang” for marketing campaigns, even deploying an ominous, laser-eyed version in a 2020 billboard that asked, “Are we creating the world’s greatest airport, or preparing for the end of the world?” (I last saw it at the airport in March 2020, which in hindsight wasn’t the best timing.)

“It’s a part of Colorado lore because it’s a recognized centerpiece of DIA that evokes a sinister feeling with its shining red eyes, rearing blue body and the knowledge of what it did to its creator,” said Bret Smith, founder of the Colorado Festival of Horror.

Susan Jimenez, however, has long said the sculpture is a proud, hopeful symbol that references the region’s early reliance on mustangs. Indeed, Colorado’s history is intertwined with the majestic horse, which roamed North American in the millions as recently as a century ago.

These days, their numbers are down to about 25,000 in 10 western states, including Colorado, according to the nonfiction book “Desert Chrome,” by Colorado’s Kathryn Wilder (out May 2021 on Torrey House Press). The author, whose property on the Colorado Plateau borders a mustang herd, explores not just the animals’ Western history but how their very idea keeps us wild and exploratory.

“Mustang” connects Colorado’s past and present in ways that feel appropriate for our troubled times, critics have said. At this point, it’s hard to imagine it rearing up on its hind legs anywhere else.

“It’s a site-specific piece for Denver, so when you go there you know exactly where you are,” Susan Jimenez said of the sculpture, which is owned and managed by the city of Denver as part of its public art collection. “Mustangs were so important to the founding of Denver, so I try to keep it in the fine-art realm.”

As a result, we haven’t seen “Mustang” as the smiling (or snarling) spokes-horse for any big advertising campaigns, despite the potential for great profit.

“We’re really careful with how we use it and ensure the artist’s family is comfortable before we do anything,” said Alex Renteria, DIA spokeswoman. “We’ve had national brands try to use his likeness for all sorts of things, but the airport doesn’t have any say in that.”

Independent and nonprofit projects have over the years have referenced “Mustang” under fair-use laws, which protect commentary, criticism and parody of copyrighted works that are transformed in the process of depiction. The 2021 StokerCon anthology themed around Blucifer, for example, fictionalizes the sculpture so as not to tread on its real-world history or use, Hex editor Joshua Viola said. (Full disclosure: I was asked to write an afterword for the book, though it’s more about Colorado’s literary scene than “Mustang.”)

One reason Blucifer has taken deep root in our imaginations is its link to existing imagery of demonic horses in mythology, religious texts and their contemporary analogs, critics and artists have also said. Rearing-horse silhouettes aren’t just common sights in museums and ranches in the West, but also in video game series like World of Warcraft and Red Dead Redemption, song lyrics, restaurant concepts and fashion.

“We wanted a demonic horse that didn’t look like Blucifer, but had more elements of a horse skeleton,” said Aaron Lovett, a Westminster artist who illustrated the cover for Hex’s StokerCon book, and a veteran artist for comics, video games and novels. “I referenced that for the shape, but I wanted to make sure it was elongated instead of bulky, like most horses.”

“We stuck with the orange flames instead of any other color, because blue and orange go together with the Broncos theme,” Hex’s Viola added. (He noted that his StokerCon book is not for sale, but rather a free souvenir for convention registrants.)

Even on its 13th birthday, “Mustang” remains elusive. DIA visitors can’t get close to its secure location on a windswept hill between the inbound and outbound lanes of Peña Boulevard, officials point out. That hasn’t stopped the occasional graffiti artist, but for the most part, the sculpture dominates views from car windows, not sidewalks or parks. Untouchable but commanding, distant yet dominant.

In that way, the popularity of “Mustang”-as-Blucifer says more about the culture around it than the artist or the piece itself. We’ve absorbed it and distorted it, increasingly weaving it into our projected identities. For better or worse, it’s been the first impression many visitors have of Denver as they leave the airport and head west toward the city and mountains.

Susan Jimenez hopes to reinforce the original, hopeful meaning with a book she’s working on about “Mustang,” as well as a soon-to-launch Luis Jimenez Trail that will direct visitors to some of the artist’s most striking pieces in 21 cities across four states. Jimenez’s sculptures have also graced the Whitney, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and other major institutions since the late 1960s.

“Luis used to say, ‘John Wayne did not invent the cowboy. The cowboy came from Mexico.’ So his work honors his heritage and the heritage of this region,” Susan Jimenez said. “Luis also unabashedly pulled from popular culture, and it makes sense that pop culture would embrace and reinterpret his work.

“I just don’t want to see the imagery overused to the point where it’s lost its meaning. But it clearly functions on a lot of different levels, so who am I to say what the hierarchy is? I have a hard time with ‘Blucifer,’ but it’s clearly become part of Denver.”

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