The Tree of Life: Real and Fantastic
By Carol Damian
Miami, FL. July 2008

The imagery of Carlos Luna is filled with complex patterns and a wealth of detail that serve as the setting for figures, objects, animals, and other arcane symbols that both emerge and merge in his designs. His references are many: a childhood in rural Cuba that beats to the drums of Afro-Antillean rhythms; a conservative art education in Havana; many years in Mexico; and a fascination for art history, especially that of medieval Spain. He also makes the transition from painting and drawing to sculpture and ceramics with a natural facility that allows the same attention to detail to dominate a variety of surfaces. Constantly exploring materials for his dedicated and meticulous approach to the creative process, Luna seems to have never-ending resources to enhance the multitude of characters and their stories that fill his works. From Cuba comes the popular hero of rural life, the guajiro – the farmer who takes on an almost mythical status as the cowboy-like figure that so often dominates his subjects. From Mexico, where he spent more than 11 years after leaving Cuba, met his beautiful and talented wife, and became totally immersed in its rich artistic environment, new symbols and materials came into his oeuvre. From Romanesque Spain, the stylizations of frescoes and manuscripts were subsumed almost subconsciously. And from the master painters of centuries past and present, there is a freedom to syncretize a variety of elements in new media and in new combinations that plays a role in bringing his recognizable imagery to the modern world. All these elements are further enlivened by his new residence in Miami, a vibrant cosmopolitan arena for art. The result of such an aesthetic and technical amalgamation permits a discussion of Luna’s work on numerous levels, each mutating and producing another, like limbs on a tree.

 

A tree is perhaps an appropriate place to start describing the narrative content that is found in Luna’s works, with its complexity of symbols. Trees are a ubiquitous element not only in their most obvious form, but also in the way so many elements appear as leaves and flowers and get lost in its patterning. The tree is also a symbol of universal significance that can transcend the socio-cultural limitations that are so often used to distinguish one people from another in time and place.

For Luna, the tree is real and fantastic, and so far-reaching that it can serve to bridge the distances from Cuba to Mexico and to Miami as well. Growing up in a rural agricultural area, with an appreciation for the land, its flora and fauna, and the hard labor of farming, he sees the tree as a metaphor for survival that is part of daily ritual. The Tree of Life, with its biblical connotations, represents life or death, depending upon whether it is healthy and nourished, or neglected and withered. It is associated with the Garden of Eden, temptation, and sexuality, and with the genealogy of Christ. In Cuba, the dominant Catholic rituals compete with those of African slaves, who also brought to the New World a vibrant reverence for nature in their elaborate set of believes, with their own pantheon of deities - necessarily disguised from the masters- musical accompaniments, and ceremonies. Santería, the most common of West African-influenced religions in Cuba, best described as the syncretic form that resulted when slaves integrated Catholic and Lucumi symbols to safely practice their faith, considered the ceiba tree especially potent as the connector between the earthly, underground, and celestial realms – provider of water, home of the orishas (the gods and goddesses), and safeguard of the equilibrium of the people. Trees are avatars of ashé, or spiritual power, and sentinels guarding the universe. Each limb may be understood to contain the symbols of the orishas, who thrive on offerings. 

 

The tree also has sacred manifestations and associations from the rituals of the ancient peoples of Mexico, particularly the Maya. The cardinal directions were associated with a world tree oriented to a specific direction that seemed to express the fourfold nature or axis mundi, located at the center of the world. Among the Maya, it was also the ceiba tree that connected the planes of sky, earth, and underworld. There were cosmic trees among the Mesoamericans and glyphs describing their locations. Birds and animals appear in these trees, along with the symbols of gods, days, and year-bearers. The tree becomes increasingly complex with the addition of these elements, and modern Mexico still reveres its image and incorporates the complexity of tree designs into crafts made from a variety of materials, especially ceramics. 

 

The accumulation of signs and symbols, figurative motifs, abstract elements, objects, and hybrid designs that is characteristic of the work of Carlos Luna fills the surfaces of his drawings, canvases, and ceramics like the branches of a tree. Each limb or leaf can be understood as distinct, but it is as a collection that the story unfolds. Leaves are replaced by all-seeing eyes, limbs by knives and scissors. Branches hold cigars and coffee cups, birds and roosters emerge from within, and men and women are one with the design. The symbolic repertoire now owned by Luna comes to life in the metaphor of a tree. The guajiro may be the central character, playing numerous roles as the hero of rural life, the machismo dominator and sexual predator, the humorous personality with his bowler hat, cigar, and erect penis embarking on the dance of life. But he takes form because of the symbolic elements that surround him and beckon his and our attention. The rooster also plays a significant role in Luna’s works. A symbol of national identity in Cuba, it represents male sexuality, virility, and machismo. The rooster is the main animal of sacrifice in Santería and gives its blood to nourish the gods. It is an active character that brings energy and personality to the artist’s paintings and ceramics. Among Luna’s images are stories of seduction with erotic overtones, and touches of wit that temporize too much serious content. Human anatomy is often reduced to the abstract elements that comprise his rhythmic patterns. 

 

The composition of the stories Luna tells, replete with the objects and symbols that have become his personal lexicon of ideas, takes its form from a number of sources as well. His introduction to art history came from his grandmother’s collection of holy images, Catholic saints, Crucifixions, and Madonnas that included replicas of European masterpieces, popular art, and unusual reproductions from the medieval Spanish manuscript by Beatus of Liébana (c. 780 A.D.) that illustrated the Apocalypse. When he entered the prestigious art schools of Havana, Luna became aware of church frescoes from the same iconographically rich Romanesque period. The manuscript and the frescoes both used a unique way of describing human figures and their religious environments that featured heavy outlines and “X-ray” visions of forms, abstraction and elongation, stylized hair and drapery, surprisingly similar to his method of drawing and painting. It is also remarkably similar to that of Picasso, who must have seen the religious frescoes of the Catalan churches, in the environs of his childhood to which he often returned. The similarities are too obvious to ignore, even if Picasso’s style changed its name to Cubism. 

 

The stylistic and technical characteristics of Luna’s work include heavy outlines, highly abstracted forms, and a dense patterning that is also reminiscent of colonial painting from Mexico and the Andes. Drapery is especially similar, with its brocade details and stenciled effect – actually done by the artist in a relief technique that is as tactile physically as visually. The tiny dots that outline many of his designs are dabs of opaque paint, meticulously applied with the same obsessive attention to detail that characterizes all his work and is typical of his work ethic. These details give a kind of baroque aesthetic to his surfaces, filled with tiny brushstrokes and a multitude of painterly elements. Cuban art has long been associated with this tendency to fill the canvas, as the houses were filled with lace cloths, stained glass windows, iron ornamentation, and quantities of small decorations. A profusion of flowers, tropical fruits, and gardens overflowing with dense vegetation was the inspiration for generations of Cuban painters. 

 

The artist’s Mexican sojourn added to the richness of resources explored in Cuba. He discovered amate paper (handmade from bark fibers), once used by ancient Mexicans for their codices. Luna realized how its unique texture could add to the richness of his images. He also learned about the diverse and extraordinary pottery traditions, especially those of Puebla, where he and his wife lived. The Talavera pottery of Puebla provided a unique approach to dealing with three-dimensional surfaces entirely covered with intricate floral patterns that further compounded the baroque aesthetic from Cuba. A type of majolica earthenware with tin glazes and elaborate designs of Spanish, Arabic, Italian, and Chinese origin, Talavera offered just the composite aesthetic that appealed to Luna’s ornamental tendencies. Mexican crafts – in paper, textiles, pottery, and a wealth of other materials – provided another source of inspiration, technically and culturally, adding to his European and Cuban designs. His ability to translate his drawing and painterly skills into the third dimension is most evident in the pottery he has created over the years. It is also another key to the connection between his work and that of Pablo Picasso that must begin with their mutual appreciation for medieval Spanish art – something quite overlooked in a discussion of Picasso’s influences, but evident when his works and Romanesque frescoes are seen together.

 

In the majority of his works from the Cubist periods and beyond, Picasso paid the same attention to contour, to strong lines describing anatomical and facial features, to flatness and distortion. In his ceramics, he used his technical brilliance and prodigious creativity to transpose his graphic genius into a new form. The recognizable attention to line and flat shapes is still evident, however, as it also is in the work of Carlos Luna. Both artists transcend the ordinary to invent a world of images that is both real and fantastic, with elements that branch out like the limbs of a tree to reach new horizons and fuel the imagination.

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