Carlos Luna: Painted Memoirs

By Scott Schweigert ©

“Any artist is bound to paint aspects of his own autobiography and construct an iconography that is uniquely his own. Carlos Luna is such an artist. The Cuban-born painter moves the viewer through his poignant history of his memories and experiences both good and bad.  Luna has encountered his fair share of oppression, tragedy and loss, but he has also felt the joys that life can offer: freedom, love, family and success.  In a sense, his painted memories remain the only viable link to his homeland—they serve collectively as his scrapbook, diary and memoir.  Guided by his memories, he weaves an intricate tapestry of pleasure and pain that emerges confidently through large-scale drawings and paintings that are both graphically alluring and symbolically potent.  It is this potency that springs forth with dramatic force from the canvas and compels viewers, almost irresistibly, to take notice.

Carlos’s oeuvre is a brilliant amalgam of native Cuban influence from twentieth-century artists such as Wilfredo Lam, Mario Carreño, and Cundo Bermudez, among others, and the profound influence of Picasso’s and Gris’ Cubism and Leger’s futurist embrace of the machine age. Grafted onto these artistic exemplars from his compatriots and icons of western modernism, are his experiences in Mexico, where he lived for over a decade immediately following his departure from Cuba.  Luna finds inspiration in the naïve and the provincial, uniquely melding Mexico’s penchant for the macabre and the primitive with the art of the western academy.  The artist’s individualism results from his inventive exploration of these culturally diverse artistic forces.

 An artist is more than the summation of his influences, however, and Luna’s sophisticated understanding of drawing, form and color reveal a much more complex artistic entity.  Working from small-scale, highly finished pencil drawings which the artist methodically files in binders and sketch books, Luna organizes his compositions with great technical skill.  Often praised for his draftsmanship, Luna remains true to his academic training at the prestigious Academia de San Alejandro and the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plàsticas in Havana.  Drawing lies at the heart of the artist’s vision.  Luna’s gouaches demonstrate strength of composition and when merged with the brilliant coloration he employs in his oil paintings, the artist’s achievements become even more effective and visually alluring.

 Luna approaches each of his paintings from the point of view of the conservator. It is almost as if he is restoring a found image such as a discarded sign, billboard or poster from a bygone era, forgotten “ready-mades” that have languished for years, awaiting the artist’s care and conservation.  The process is one akin to resurrection and, one by one, the artist brings his paintings back to life. Luna’s is a meticulous method that involves building up layers of paint only to scrape them away, leaving them in an abraded state. Seen in the midst of the process, the toll of the violent scraping and removal of paint layers renders the works virtual victims of vandalism or of the ravages of time.  The artist then builds up fresh layers that take on a much more refined and highly-polished surface with painstaking detail, subtle modeling of from and brilliant colors.  From battered origins beauty emerges and time and time again, Luna recovers the diamond from the rough.

Luna’s histories cannot easily be digested in a simple way. Instead, the artist knits together folklore and anecdotes with his own complex mythology from his hometown of San Luis in the rural province of Pinar del Rio, situated in the western most fringes of Cuba. His protagonists, however, are not cast as heroic gods and goddesses but are common, rustic folk set in uncommon circumstances. For example, in his pair of gouaches on amate (bark) paper Realista (2005) and Soñador (2005), Luna pictures two very different figures. The Realist, the Guajiro or country-dweller with hat and moustache, strikes an aggressive pose and struggles with weapons in each hand while the waters rise near his waistline. Encircled by a full-body halo or mandorla of azure blue water, the Realist becomes an ersatz island, symbolic of his homeland.  The figure expresses anguish and distress, his bright red tongue ablaze with the same red that drip or, rather, “flowers” from his knives and the red field in the Cuban flag that has become the pocket of his coat jacket. His other “pocket” consists of the smiling moon-face deity that derives from the Cuban popular religion known as santería. Santería fuses the African Yoruba religion with aspects of Catholicism and has been associated with popular, subversive forces in Cuba. The mask-like face of the deity elegguà, who stands at the crossroads between the earthly and the divine, appears as one of Luna’s recurring symbols.  The Realist has been forced to accept his fate and is victim to the realities of geography and politics.

 His counterpart, the Dreamer, levitates elegantly—almost divinely- above the waterline. His daggers and blood are replaced by a red flower and bird—symbols of peace and freedom.  His gaze does not meet the viewer’s; instead, his almond-like white eyelids are closed.  He is in a trancelike state, removed spiritually and intellectually from the realities of his destiny.  In these two compelling works Luna captures in microcosm the dual nature of the Cuban condition and, in macrocosm, the dual nature of the human condition.

 The graphic power of text in Luna’s gouaches strikes the viewer with the same force as do his human and animal forms. Boldly outlined in black with centers of white, the words which often accompany the images, suggest subtitles or captions and, in some cases, set up humorous juxtapositions between text and the narrative illustrated.  Like America’s Pop artists of the 1960s and 70s, Luna employs these words to guide the viewer and to suggest sophisticated double entendres. Luna’s captions are often set apart from the main action of the composition and contribute to the drama in the same way subtitles in a foreign film or the full-screen text of a silent movie from the early 1900s.  Secrecy and code are crucial to understanding many of Luna’s paintings.  Guarded language dominated life in Cuba where concealment and undercover messages were a way of life because of fear of government.  Now, freed from that context, Luna’s paintings reveal a bit of nostalgia for his earlier way of life.

 Luna’s flair for the theatrical extends beyond his bold captions and subtitles. His painted figures have been compared to marionettes or puppets and often the artist frames his compositions with stage curtains which are drawn to reveal to the audience recurring themes of desire, love, courtship, as well as exile, separation, and violence.  The suggestion of dynamically lighted marquees that announces the dramatic narratives that play out in his compositions.  Luna even goes so far as to illuminate the men and women he depicts, outlining their forms in bold series of white dots. The resulting simplicity of form has its roots in the vernacular tradition, and serves to underscore the hometown dramas of Luna’s canvases and drawings.

The overt—sometimes savage—sensuality and eroticism are among the constant features of the art of Carlos Luna. Every aspect of the artist’s compositions seems to be in a state of eternal transformation or metamorphosis—from the internal structures to the overt interest in the surfaces.  Trees and plants transform into phalluses and in some works, Luna reverses direction, transforming the Guajiro’s genitals into blooming bouquets of flowers.  In other works, tree roots suggest the supple, inviting legs of women.  Like Wilfredo Lam’s images from the mid-1940s of tropical foliage and the dense vegetation of the jungle, Luna’s hybrids emerge from dark backgrounds and include visual references to botanicals such as flowers and palm fronds; body parts such as breasts and phalluses; as well as more ominous symbols such as knives, guns skulls, and the “all-seeing” eye.

Luna’s iconic hybrid “rooster-man” inhabits many of his paintings including Untitled (Cabron) (2001), El Tragico (1997), and La Sospecha (1997). The creature, dressed in fine suits with visible stitching, fashions himself as a dandy or flaneur about town, elegantly on the prowl and brimming with self-confidence and machismo.  For Luna, the rooster serves as an indicator of masculinity and sexuality.  The creature vehemently defends his own territory, battles with other males over mates, and even controls the day by announcing its commencement at the break of dawn (Buen dia, 2005) and its conclusion at sunset (Buena noche, 2005).  Like the one worn by the Guajiro, the suit worn by the rooster-man reveals and conceals simultaneously. The viewer sees, for example, muscle, skeleton and the texture of the fabric all together. Like the multi-layered meaning of Luna’s work, the internal is brought to the surface for the viewer to observe and take delight. It is a sophisticated stylization of forms that comprised of textiles, animals, flowers and everything in between.  Shoes figure prominently in Luna’s iconography and are one aspect of his paintings that could be easily overlooked.  However, for the artist, they reveal his fascination during his youth with the appearance of his own shiny shoes.  Shoes were symbolic not just of his economic status—shoes were expensive and difficult to come by in Castro’s Cuba—they represent a bit of his own self-worth and in his paintings appear large and eternally shimmering with white reflective lights.

 Carlos extends to his audience a dizzying array of symbols: cigars, roosters, moustaches, bowler hats, elephants, horses, flowers, bulls, scorpions, dominos, “all-seeing” eyes, ships, airplanes and his curious reptilian interpretation of his native island.  The compendium of humans, animals and objects that inhabit Carlos Luna’s paintings and drawings signify pieces the artist’s own history.  They represent the dog-eared pages from his memoirs or yellowed sheets from his scrapbook—re-imagined in the extraordinary context of his artistic vision.

November 2006