I was fortunate to spend some time with Carlos Luna in his Miami studio. We discussed his process, the materials and techniques he has mastered, his artistic motifs, and the cultural context that enables Luna’s art to engage us with such power and beauty. This is where I first saw Black Bite, which I believe is the iconic piece of this exhibition, representing Luna’s best work as an artist to date.
Black Bite was created on a very strong, thick, dense, and smooth French paper glued to the surface and around the edges of a wooden support. If attempted on canvas, it would have taken many layers of sanded gesso to get a similar smoothness and density of surface. But because it is paper, made of cotton pulp that has been left un-sized and natural, it absorbs everything. The white surface is unforgiving.
Luna applies only natural materials to the paper’s surface: pigment, watercolor, ink, pencil and charcoal. Then, to finish the piece, he rubs a wax and oil varnish on the surface to unify the many different layers and achieve the great richness of his work. The technical process is time-consuming and demanding, but Luna is excited each time he makes a work of art:
Each time, I come up with a different flavor/result, and it gets closer to what I want. It’s like cooking! I have to embrace it and play with it.
Luna’s first show in the American University Museum, in 2008, featured mostly works on canvas, but some were also on Amate paper. Amate paper is a very rich, beautiful paper made from tree bark in Mexico since the Pre-Hispanic times. I was especially impressed by these works on paper. Unfortunately, Luna has been unable to obtain the highest-quality Amate paper for the last several years. I think this was fortuitous, as this new work on French paper represents a major breakthrough for the artist.
Luna wanted to create his art on paper in a large format without having to frame it under glass. To achieve this, he worked with paper conservators and did a lot of experimenting to find the right materials and techniques to make sure the artwork was going to last and give him the surface he wanted. The resulting work, exemplified by Black Bite, has all the advantages of paper—the beauty, texture and resilience of paper—and the size and visual impact of his canvases.
All of Luna’s great technique, of course, is at the service of his artistic vision. He describes his subject matter this way:
In Cuba, people use the expression “Black Bite” to say you have a dark problem, the worst of the worst, you got a black bite, you had the dark holes, you are tanked, you are done for. Who are you when you have the problem? You can either be the problem or the solution to the problem. When you have chosen to be the solution to the problem, you hug the problem and become a part of it, but not in a problematic way, you are there to fix it, you will make it all right.
This man in the painting, he’s basically consumed by everything around him that has teeth. His hand is extending beyond himself. He is part of the problem, but as you can see in the painting, he’s not dark like everything around him. He is extending his arms to receive the problem, and become the light within the problem. Instead of running from the problem, he hugs the problem.
In Cuban rural culture and the Afro-Cuban religion of the countryside, the horse is very important. The horse is a basic part of living life in the country, just as, in Miami, you must have a car. You cannot picture a country man without a horse. In Afro-Cuban culture the horse can also be a medium:
When a spirit gets hold of a person, the spirit talks through the person, and refers to the person as the horse. The person is in a trance. As a living person, if I have the gift that the dead spirits can get into me, then I am the horse, the medium that allows the dead to talk through me. In daily life, the horse is a medium of transportation, and in spiritual life, the horse is a medium between the spirit world and the material world. The horse is coming out of the dark, both figures—the man and the horse—are dematerialized by the dark that shows they are passing through and become a part of it.
The painting talks about the moment when someone is having a bad or dark period and they can learn from that and grow from that, transform themselves into something greater, or they can look inside themselves at their dark side, accept that and grow from that. It’s like when I was a child, I was very shy. But not anymore. I accepted and overcame my weakness, but that will also be part of my history.
Recently, Luna started to work outside the edge of the paper, to make the framing part of the work. It started with the ceramics he made for a show in California. Gradually Luna saw he needed to get beyond the two-dimensional canvas and onto the frame and eventually onto the wall. Painting, sculpture, and installation became one:
I had thought of two ideas for the painting on the wall for Black Bite. One is a huge mouth eating everything, eating the whole story, the story within the story. The other idea was of an eye becoming a cone, a pyramid becoming a huge mouth. It is very simple. It has to do with the capability of seeing, the gift of seeing, but not seeing like this, but from a panoramic perspective, seeing outside of yourself, seeing the whole picture. When we believe that we are able to create, we stop creating. If you can put your ego on the side, you are able to achieve a panoramic view. And then you can see your own problem. You can see your dark side, and accept it.
Black Bite is written in the painting upside down:
If it was written in reverse, as if in a mirror, you cannot read it. I wanted it to be for the viewers to be able to read it and recognize it, but in another space. The man looks at his dark side after he travels through, and found out his dark side is not that dark. Reality is darker. It’s harder than traveling to hell and back. Being in front of daily life, it is hard.
Luna’s creative process brings together the idea and the technical process that solves the idea:
I see, I perceive, I feel, then my brain elaborates it and my hands solve it. Everything has to be connected. It’s not about the head leading the hands. The hands are the tools to solve the head, and the head solves the heart. For me, it’s a team. I seek the solution—How do I solve it? How do I solve it?—but when I stop asking myself, I start doing it. In small sketches I try things. It’s like all the puzzle parts come together. The solution comes to me.
Luna’s motifs are usually based on Cuban folklore, but they are universally relatable:
My subjects are just a reflection of everyday life. I don't have time to discuss someone else’s life. It might be more interesting than my life, but I think it’s important to talk about my life and what I have been through. I talk about human problems. My problems as a living being have echoes in other people’s lives.
Ever since the first people were around, our problems have been about ourselves, What we are doing. Our existence. I cannot talk to an alien about my problem, because he cannot relate to them, but people even from different backgrounds can relate to human problems.
Black Bite is a technical achievement, an artistic triumph, and a cultural revelation. Luna brings viewers into the darkness and returns them to the light, both physically and psychologically. He presents us with culture-specific imagery, but we come to understand the universality of his art. Luna does everything we can ask from our best artists.