Carlos Luna: Cuban Artist at the Crossroads
By Curtis L. Carter
Milwaukee, WI. July 1, 2008

Who is the artist Carlos Luna? Carlos Luna would say that he is a Cuban artist, and this is true in the sense that he was born on the island in 1969, in the tobacco center of Pinar del Rio. He recalls making a painting at age 7 of his mother. His interest in painting was further kindled at age 9 by the request of his aunt for a painting of a volcano. His formal artistic training took place in the art schools of Cuba. After three years of initial art studies at Escuela Provincial de Artes Plasticas in Pinar del Rio from 1980 to 1983, he continued his education between 1980 and 1991 at the Academia de San Alejandro, the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticas, and the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. His early recognition as a talented artist also took place in Cuba, where he was awarded prizes and participated in solo and group exhibitions between 1984 and 1991.


What does it mean to be a Cuban artist in the 21st century? First, it means in essence to participate in the legacy of an extended cultural history reaching back at least to the visit of Christopher Columbus in 1492. In some respects, Luna, together with all Cuban artists, is a product of all the various influences integral to his Cuban heritage.

 

Cuba has occupied a role in cultural and economic history far out of scale to its geographic size. This is in part because of its rich supply of natural resources, including a tropical climate attractive to tourists, and in part because of its strategic location in the Caribbean just off the coast of the United States. As a leading producer of sugar, coffee, nickel, and tobacco, Cuba was attractive to mainly Spanish colonial entrepreneurs who, in turn, contributed to a diverse cultural mix by bringing in workers from Africa and Asia. Luna’s ancestors include Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Afro-Cubans.

The cultural history of Cuba is set in a complex sociopolitical environment incorporating traditions of the dominant Spanish colonial culture, and to a lesser extent, remnants of the all but obliterated native Indian culture, with influences from Africans, Asians, and others who were drawn to the island. The culture divides into city and country, each with its own particular characteristics.  Havana evolved a unique form of city life with elegant Spanish-style architecture and its own distinctive blend of island and international lifestyles. In other parts of the island the sugar plantations and tobacco-producing centers such as Pinar del Rio developed as alternate cultural centers. Luna lived in Pinar del Rio in “a peaceful country-style town,” where his family worked in the state-run cigar industry, until he left for art studies in urban Havana at age 14.


Culture and education in Cuba have continued to develop at a very high level, despite a tumultuous political history that includes four centuries of Spanish colonial rule. This began with the discovery of the island by Columbus in 1492, continued with a series of revolutions resulting eventually in independence from Spain in 1902, and culminated in internal political ferment and the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959. Among the most leading representatives of preeminence among Cuban artists are poet José Lezama Lima, composer Ernesto Lecuona, ballet dancer Alicia Alonso, and visual artist Wifredo Lam. These cultural achievements reflect in part a program of excellence in education and training for artists in different media. This effort has sustained a noteworthy output among the island’s artists and has also resulted in an educated public that appreciates the creative output of its artists. Cuban popular culture is equally rich for its contributions to music and dance forms such as the rumba, mambo, and salsa. All of these elements contribute to the external environment that shapes a contemporary Cuban artist. As a lover of African-based music and dancing and a bongo player himself, Luna is no stranger to this aspect of Cuban culture.


To this already complex cultural mix, it is necessary to add the influences of artist émigrés that have transpired over time, especially since the 1920's to the present. The migration of Cuban artists to Europe and various parts of the Americas such as Mexico and the United States has contributed another level of influence on the development of Cuban art and culture. Among the most important émigré artists is Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), who brought to Cuba from his long period of residence in Europe the influences of Pablo Picasso's Cubism and Andre Breton's Surrealism.  Lam’s friendship with Picasso in Paris during the late 1930s revealed that the two shared a common artistic spirit. Through his association with Picasso, Lam gained a new appreciation for the importance of African sculptures and masks for modern art. This experience helped prepare him to incorporate these and other elements of African culture already present in his native Cuba into his own work. [1] He also drew upon stylistic elements of Picasso’s approach to art pertaining to the geometric depiction of the human body. Through Lam and other Cuban vanguard artists who had spent time outside Cuba, especially in Paris, the influence of Cubism and Surrealism, with the latter’s emphasis on automatism and revealing the unconscious through visual and literary images, brought the new artistic developments of Europe into the Cuban artistic community. At the same time, Lam’s return to Cuba in the 1940s transformed his own art with the infusion of Afro-Cuban religious symbols and the flavor of the flora of the Caribbean landscape, leaving a lasting influence on Cuban art.


As other artists have before him, Luna found it necessary in 1991 to depart from his beloved Cuba. For him it was a question of searching for an environment that would provide him with greater freedom and more fluid opportunities to pursue his objectives as an artist. Although well known in Cuba by the end of the 1980s, he had ideas for making art that did not follow the rules the Cuban critical and political environment of the time supported.


A picture of Carlos Luna as an artist would be incomplete without taking account of the experiences he accumulated in exile, first in Puebla, Mexico, from 1991 to 2002, and since 2003 in Miami.  In Mexico, he encountered the great masters of mural art and other Mexican artists including Rufino Tamayo, José Guadalupe Posada, Francisco Toledo, and others, as Jesús Rosado has noted. [2] Luna himself cites the importance of Tamayo, especially for his ability to adhere to tradition while remaining contemporary, and for his ability to stand firm in his views in the face of challenges from alternative trends in the practice of art and art criticism. [3]


There are seeming traces of Mexican art in Luna’s work, including, for example, the figurative etchings of Posada. Luna’s interpretation of the Guajiro with hat, cigar, and mustache portrays him as a man of simplicity and dignity, a hero of “close to earth” Cuban life. He is a character who might well be at home among the characters in Posada’s graphic renderings of everyday life in Mexico. The Guajiro appears repeatedly throughout Luna’s work. (He sometimes refers to this character as his alter-ego.) Or compare for example Luna’s Rooster Man, astride a brightly colored red horse in A La Batalla, 1996, with Posada’s etching of the outlaw figure Parra on horseback and with sword in hand  in Al Malvadoignalio Parra. [4] But the treatment of such images in Luna’s paintings is very different.  The flat, linear etchings of Posada carry a satiric edge of didactic social realist commentary, with references and interpretations that his audience might connect to real current or past events.


This element of social realism is largely absent in Luna’s vividly colored images.  Instead, the characters in his iconography are fictive playful ones generated from his imagination, perhaps partially based on personal memories from childhood experiences in Cuba as well as elements from his current life.  Luna’s Café Con Con, 2006, finds the Guajiro seated with coffee cup in hand, looking a bit like a character out of a 1920s painting by Fernand Léger. No doubt he is recollecting with pleasure the place that coffee holds in Cuban life. In this picture, the Guajiro sits amid a whimsical medley of floating surreal objects on a red background – disembodied eyes, human genitals, a horseshoe – suggestive of the makings of a sorcerer’s brew. Above and below in a black rectangular band sit the words CAFÉ LECHE.  On the right are three variations on the coffee pot, each suspended in its own gold and green square.


Since Luna’s move to Miami in 2003, his career has continued to expand with exhibitions across the country. His interests in painters beyond Latin America have also continued to broaden. His concerns with alternative approaches to painting extend into sources of English Pop art such as Peter Blake, father of British Pop, probably for his colorful, energetic, collage-like paintings. He also cites the American artists R. B. Kitaj, Philip Guston, Susan Rothenberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Jasper Johns for their strong sense of identity and originality. Although Luna does not mention Keith Haring, there appear to be common elements in the works of the two painters. Haring’s visually textured canvases and his use of repetitive characters and erotic stories parallel aspects of Luna’s approach to painting. [5] And Luna would agree with Haring’s view that art is the product of the individual artist and is for all the people. It does not depend on its connections to a particular style or group or an elite art community. [6]


It is necessary, nonetheless, to avoid analyzing Luna’s work solely in terms of possible influences from other artists and movements. His aim is to establish in his work an independent voice distinguishable among others in the contemporary art world. More important for the understanding of Luna than any attempt to pin down precise connections to the practices of Mexican or North American artists is the fact of exile itself. With exile come separation and risk, on the one hand, and opportunity on the other. What, for example, is the effect of exile on the identity of the artist, and how does this affect his work? Even the risk of losing the essence of what it means to be a Cuban artist must not be overlooked. Luna’s answer to this matter, rightly it seems, is to acknowledge that he is Cuban, but also now an American and a citizen of the world. Exile can also provide a fresh perspective on one’s roots and the opportunity to expand one’s artistic vision and influence to a wider global scale. The problem every artist today faces, whether in Cuba, China, or elsewhere, is how to meaningfully connect what has been learned from a culture of origin to the alternative vocabularies for making art that exists in a global world. In this respect, Luna’s exile has expanded his opportunities for exposure to a wider world audience and for his work to be judged in a broader arena than might have resulted had he not chosen to leave his homeland.


How are we to understand Carlos Luna’s art? Turning now to the art of Luna, how are we to understand this artist’s contributions? First, his work is based on solid classical training obtained during his studies in Cuba. As a result, his draftsmanship is excellent, and he knows well how to craft the formal elements of color, line, and volume. His observations of paintings by the old masters – his grandmother had a collection of reproductions of works by Matthias Grünewald, Andrea Mantegna, Diego Velázquez—provide his first experiences with art history, along with the illuminated manuscript of the medieval Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana. [7] School studies and especially direct observations of the paintings of Cuban masters such as Wifredo Lam’s La Silla (The Chair), 1943, in the Museo National Belles Artes in Havana, had a profound effect on his understanding of aesthetics.


Luna’s approach to constructing a painting is to work very carefully to ensure that the painting is a well-crafted material artifact, as well as an articulate expression of his ideas. He enjoys the process of working in oil. “Painting is like a woman who will show you her body only if you offer her your soul,” says the artist. Respect for the process of oil painting requires working slowly to build up multiple layers after he personally prepares the canvas with different tints of gesso, some hand-made, some bought. The composition process begins with preliminary sketches to prepare the ideas for execution in the painting. A charcoal drawing on a base of Indian red forms the structural basis of the painting. The surface of the canvas is built up by applying layers of color in stages of wet-dry-wet layering.


These particular interests in classical processes of production point to Luna’s primary concern with painting as opposed to other contemporary ways of making art such as installation, performance, video, or photography. (Like Picasso, he has also experimented with etchings and ceramics.) With regard to photography, Luna enjoys and respects photography, especially in the hands of a master artist such as Edward Weston. Unlike some painters today, however, Luna does not use photographs in the creation of his paintings. Perhaps his insistence on pursuing a career as a painter, rather than following the critically fashionable paths of installation, performance, or media arts, was a factor in his decision to leave the artistic scene in Cuba in the early 1990s. His aim was to base his art in traditional means but with a contemporary voice. Thus his commitment to painting. 


Although he is open and attentive to new discoveries and innovation in his approach to art, Luna’s work cannot be considered avant-garde in the context of contemporary art. He finds the avant-garde today more related to fashion, market, and sensation. The avant-garde of the early 20th century is of greater interest because it was more authentic. 


This brings us to a question of aesthetics with respect to Luna’s art. As a classically trained artist, Luna creates paintings that belong to the tradition of fine art. This fact sets him apart from self-taught or so-called outsider artists. It also takes him out of the realm of the folk arts and popular arts; although he might draw upon the same sources among many for the materials he uses to construct his images. Occasional elements of Western popular culture and Pop art are of interest to Luna. It is possible to think of each painting, analogously, as a single frame in a serial comic strip or series of cartoons. From one painting to another the characters in Luna’s paintings remain the same, although the narrative changes. They reappear in a more or less random series of works as in successive comics or cartoons.  Nevertheless, each painting is self-contained and stands as an independent work.


Luna would agree with the philosopher John Dewey that the artist’s task is to make certain to establish and maintain continuity between the “refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the every day events, doings and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.” [8] Dewey’s ideas concerning art and everyday experience seem well suited to Luna’s approach to painting. His paintings are essentially narrative historical tales, in part autobiographical, presented in visual form. The stories are from everyday experiences reconstructed in the imagination using iconography from the artist’s personal and cultural experiences. The visual narratives in the paintings invite viewers to connect with and to feel the emotional power in the stories. This means that a painting begins its life for the viewer with his/her giving an attentive eye to the work, resulting in aroused interest and enjoyment.  The iconography and the stories told in Luna’s paintings are at once particular incidents and universal themes. They bring to consciousness the ordinary life experiences: passion, violence, ambition, conflict, humor, irony, and sensuality. 


When seen from the perspective of its culture of origin in Cuba, Luna’s art also embraces the aesthetic espoused by the Cuban critic Alejo Carpentier, who introduced the concept of lo real maravilloso Americano, or the Marvelous American Reality. [9] Carpentier introduces the Marvelous as an alternative to Surrealism, where dreams and the unconscious are the main source for the artist’s images.  He describes the Marvelous as a life concept that embraces history, natural environment, and culture – including Indian and Afro-Cuban religious rituals and dances and other aspects of Latin American culture. Natural realities of time and place, with their improbable juxtapositions that exist because of the particular history, geography, and politics of Latin America, provide the sources for its artists. Carpentier’s aesthetic of the Marvelous helps to locate Luna’s paintings in the context of Latin American art.


The result is paintings that function as visual narratives. Stories in Luna’s paintings exist in a visual world consisting of both representation and abstraction. Vibrant colors are an important component of their visual structures, with the artist often favoring reds, blues, and golds, but also embracing shades of black and brown. Strongly linear shapes, sometimes Cubist, sometimes as organic shapes of flowers or plant leaves and stems, hold in check the energetic color choices. As if inspired by musical rhythms, the colors and shapes dance across the canvas with the energy of living natural forces. The settings for narrative actions in the paintings, whether theatrical or otherwise, include rich tapestries of graphic elements drawn from many cultures.


Often the narratives focus on a set of characters: machismo figures such as the Rooster Man and the Guajiro honestly reflect the artist’s consciousness of his upbringing in a machismo-driven society. At the same time his profound respect for the worth and power of the feminine is shown in the elegant and beautiful character of “pretty lady,” reportedly based on his wife, Claudia. Symbolic animal figures such as the black bull, the horse, and the alligator, whose graphic shape may refer to Cuba, help populate Luna’s narratives. The rooster as a symbol of machismo is deeply embedded in Cuban culture and recalls Luna’s boyhood experience as a participant in the popular culture of cockfights. (Picasso also uses the rooster image in his painting Cock of Liberation, 1944). [10]


Although much of Luna’s art is a joyful celebration of life laced with understated humor, he does not avoid its darker side. Interplay between his characters in the paintings shows a variety of activities from expressions of erotic desire (Formacion De Ataque, 2004) to a game of chess, (Damas chinas, 2007). The strong presence of guns and knives in the images points to games of another sort. They echo the threat of machismo violence that is also part of the artist’s Cuban legacy, as in 100% Puro Cubano, 2003.


There is one additional symbol that appears repeatedly throughout the paintings, as it did in the paintings of Wifredo Lam. This is Elegguá, a deity in the Yoruba pantheon that carries over into Afro-Cuban religion. Represented in Luna’s paintings by a face in the shape of a half-moon, the Elegguá is the guardian of the crossroads who opens the door to opportunities in life. Elegguá is also seen as a trickster who requires acknowledgment with prayers and gifts and thus should not be ignored. What role does this symbol play in Luna’s paintings? Is it an homage to the Afro-Cuban culture?  Does the artist identify personally with the character? Perhaps it is simply one more important link to the artist’s Cuban roots.


At age 39, Luna has arrived at a critical point in his artistic career. He has succeeded in establishing a signature identity in his work, which continues to mature in its style and thematic coherence, as is evident in El Gran Mambo, 2006, his most ambitious work to date. [11] Other recent works give hints of his exploring different directions. For example, Damas chinas portrays two male figures seemingly in deep concentration. The two characters are similarly dressed in hat and armorlike outfits and seated in red frame chairs on opposite sides of a black and red checkerboard. This foreground is set against a background of blue and black squares within squares. The pictorial space here differs from most of Luna’s compositions as, except for the two figures, it consists entirely of flat, geometric shapes. The checkerboard is also flat and visually parallel to the background without any concession to its three-dimensional objecthood. Peering over the top side of the checkerboard is the Elegguá, poised to observe, or to guide the moves.


Luna’s successes are noteworthy as measured by a growing list of fellowships, including a 2001 grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. In the past three years he also achieved a growing list of solo museum exhibitions, including Miami Beach’s Bass Museum of Art; the American University Museum, Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, California; the Museum of Art / Fort Lauderdale and the international contemporary art fair, Art Santa Fe. These events, as well as representation in an expanding list of group exhibitions and private collections, point to a growing interest in the artist’s work. As the general interest in Cuban art continues to expand, there is good reason to think that Luna’s work will benefit.


At this juncture Luna faces important challenges and decisions that will shape his destiny as an artist. How will his evolving identity as an artist in exile affect the work? Will he continue to retain identity as a Cuban artist, or will the increasing globalization of the art world lead him in other directions? Where to take the art in the future so as to sustain its vitality and avoid repetition and caricature will be perhaps the main challenge. The struggle to stay focused on aesthetics and let the future development of the art emerge out of new and evolving ideas without succumbing to market pressures will be critical. In his words, “Quality in the art is the most important factor. The standard must be quality art that expresses the human spirit.” [12]


July 1, 2008

[1] Max-Pol Fouchet, Wilfredo Lam (Barcelona: Editiones Polégrafa, S. A., 1976), pp. 118 – 137. Lowrey Stokes Sims, Wilfredo Lam and the International Avant-Garde, 1923-1982 (Austin: University of Texas, 2002), pp. 19-26, 43.
[2] Jesús Rosado, “Carlos Luna: An Island for the Road,” Carlos Luna: Personal Histories. Exhibition Catalogue, Susquehanna Art Museum, Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery, Polk Museum of Art, 2007, 2008, p. 27.
[3] Carlos Luna, Interview with Jesús Rosado, “The Bird of Paradise and Its Shadow: A Conversation With Carlos Luna,” Carlos Luna: El Gran Mambo (Long Beach, California: Museum of Latin American Art, 2008), p.68. In the same interview, Luna cites other Mexican masters such as Antonio Ruiz el Corzo, José Luis Cuevas, Juan Soriano, Francisco Toledo, Irma Palacios, and Miguel Cervantes as artists of interest.
[4] See Carlos Luna: Yo traigo de todo (Puebla, Mexico: Museo Universitario, Universidad autónomia de Puebla, 1998), p. 67. Also see José Guadalupe Posada archives, Print 999-019-015, Center for Southwest Research, Special Collections, University of New Mexico. Internet.
[5] See Elisabeth Sussman, Keith Haring (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997), pp. 33, 139, 124, 197, et al.
[6] Keith Haring, Keith Haring’s Journals (New York: Viking Press, 1996), p. 13. See also Curtis L. Carter, “Keith Haring: Arte per Tutti (Art for the People),” Keith Haring: Il Murale di Milwaukee (Milan, Italy: Skira, 2007), pp. 13-22.
[7] Jesús Rosado, “The Bird of Paradise and Its Shadow: A Conversation With Carlos Luna,” Carlos Luna: El Gran Mambo (Long Beach, California: Museum of Latin American Art, 2008), p. 67.
[8] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn Books, 1934, 1948), p. 3.
[9] Alejo Carpentier, El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of the World), 1949.
[10] Pablo Picasso, Cock of Liberation, Collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
[11] See Enrique García Gutierréz, “Carlos Luna:  Keep Your Eyes on Me,” Carlos Luna: El Gran Mambo (Long Beach, California: Museum of Latin American Art, 2008), pp. 13 – 19.
[12] Carlos Luna, Interview with Curtis L. Carter, Long Beach, California, June 15, 2008.

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