Carlos Luna: An Island for the Road
By Jesús Rosado ©
“Art is an epiphany in a coffee cup.”
- Elizabeth Murray
Carlos Luna’s visual harvest abounds in exceptional qualities. First and foremost
among these is his conscious decision to paint, at the very height of postmodernism,
in the same purist spirit with which Elizabeth Murray  audaciously set out to
paint back in the 1980s. He has turned his back neither on the present nor on innovation,
and indeed has taken into account that the visual arts today are a complex mesh of
techniques and formal elements. Luna’s creativeness has delved into sculpture, ceramics
and artifacts; yet his loyalty to the traditional format of each of these art forms
has curbed any temptation to integrate them.
Another characteristic of Luna’s work is the polished convergence he achieves between
aesthetic erudition –implicit in his visual expression- and the appearance of a spontaneity
born either from the naïve in popular culture, or from the intuition of a talented
amateur. Truly, one can assume the naïve ambiance of Carlos Luna’s imagery, but only
insofar as it is assumed as liberating action purposely taken by a painter who spent
eleven intense years in formal academic training and whose mind nurtures on diverse
cultures and periods.
The graceful candidness of his drawing technique and the rustic arrangement of figures
so typical of his compositions can transport the viewer simultaneously to the animation
of marionettes in traditional puppet theater; the scenes wrought by early 20th century
Russian folklorists; and the captivating trajectory of American outsiders like Bill
Traylor, Martin Ramírez and Eddie Arning. This is, indeed, a curious hodgepodge of
inspiration, and Luna admits to borrowing elements from each when in the process
of composing a piece.
When it comes to making its selections, however, the mind of this artist delves into
a wider spectrum through subconscious synchronies or premeditated encounters with
the transcendent legacies of universal culture. This explains his tangential brush
with the formalities of Egyptian art, with two-dimensional expression, symbolism,
and the hieratic approach that French historian Francois Lenormant  defined as
“a solemn and cabalistic pantomime.” In Carlos Luna’s case, the pantomime can be
imminently jestful or imminently dramatic, but in either case it is always evident,
as in Soñador (2005) and El Guajiro Cubano I (2003).
Other influences that Luna has dexterously assimilated into many of his works stem
from Henri Rousseau’s exotic fantasies –evident in Luna’s Buen Día (2005) and Elefantito
ja…bonito, bonito (2004) - , the chromatic dynamism of rayonist Mikhail Larionov,
and the tubular forms in Ferdinand Leger. To this amalgam of referents, Luna incorporates
subtly certain elements of constructivism and cubism as well as symbols from African
animism, and makes technical connections to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning’s
abstract expressionism. This explains that behind an iconography of naïve folkloric
connotations there actually lies a compendium of carefully crafted explorations that
yield an unusual pictorial identity wherein high art has been recycled through a
The inspirational referents outlined above in no way detract from the singular quality
of Carlos Luna’s painting. His style cannot be copied: it is simply overwhelming.
Every element he may borrow from multicultural sources dissolves in his vigorous
Caribbean creativity and in the visual chronicle traditions found in the Spanish
American world. In addition, Carlos Luna’s work is a reflection of the artist as
protagonist or as repository of a visual narrative. It is personal intellectual baggage
that hides in his pictorial language, a language as authentic as it is decipherable,
as innovative as it is impeccably crafted. His humble rural origin, his love of the
land and small-town life is also in the work. There is not one Carlos Luna painting
where the “scent of coffee” is absent, el café that accompanies every tale and every
myth along Cuba’s countryside.
Luna was born in 1969 in Cuba’s westernmost province, Pinar del Río. He started formal
art education at the School of Fine Arts right there in Pinar del Río, and went on
to Havana’s prestigious Academia San Alejandro and Cubanacán National Art School.
He graduated from the Institute of Visual Arts – Cuba’s institution of higher education
in the arts- in 1991.
During the decade before Luna emerged as a rising talent in Cuba’s art world, the
two most significant developments in the arts of the island had been a surge of extreme
hyper realism, and the strengthening of a movement versed in vernacular traditions
in painting that achieved notable aesthetic value. With their bold and colorful imagery,
rudimentary painters like Jay Matamoros, Gilberto de la Nuez and Benito Ortiz, among
others, breathed life into a Cuban reality marked by decadent political art at the
service of Castro’s dictatorship. The vernacular alternative chosen by their predecessors
was keenly observed and reassessed later on by the Eighties Generation. “Generación
de los ‘80” was responsible for a phenomenon that shook Cuba’s visual art world by
radically renewing the visual cannon and incorporating unheard of concepts and approaches
to art that enabled them to push their way into the island’s cultural spaces. This
revitalizing movement was christened by critics and scholars alike “nuevo arte cubano”,
new art of Cuba. It sprung from a spirit of protest, and along the way it contributed
new theoretical and methodological options by taking on many themes and subjects
that had been long forbidden by official government censorship.
With time, this generation’s heresy would become more defiant of the governments
cultural hegemony. In the mid-eighties, a second group of younger artists energized
the first wave. They assumed an even more radical attitude toward both aesthetics
and art theory, lashing on the side of social confrontation against the lack of individual
freedoms, the ideological monopoly exerted by authoritarian rule, and the degradation
of ethical values in Cuban society. What emerges is a talented movement characterized
by an innate peculiarity born of the socio-economic realities of the Cuban model.
It is difficult to classify the movement, so plural and surprising were their innovative
means of expression.
Carlos Luna’s poignant and impetuous temperament emerged amidst that group of irreverent
artists whose creative dynamic kindled heated transformations. Their lack of prejudice
and their temerity ignored every attempt on the part of the state to demonize them.
The combination of bohemian attitude and cynicism impudently unveiled to the masses
the evils of the dictatorship through a truly indomitable art. It is from this realm
that Carlos Luna’s work comes forth.
The Cuban government’s response to the rebellious liberalism of this generation
of artists was to bar it gradually from exhibition spaces –a prerogative of Cuba’s
cultural authorities- while making it possible for them to opt for what has been
labeled “velvet exile”, a sort of condescending revolving door that allowed for periodic
round trips as long as the artists’ hostilities did not escalate.
In 1991, Luna chose exile, but not the velvety kind. His break with totalitarian
rule was nothing short of drastic. There would be no comings and goings for him,
only painful and irrevocable uprooting. He settled in Mexico where he met his beloved
Claudia. With Claudia Ramírez he set out to forge the prospects of a new and permanent
family. His island –the island tucked away in his soul- laid waiting in his artist’s
backpack. No sooner did he manage an easel that a batch of canvases and works-on-paper
flowed forth in an incessant sequence of anecdotes, mythical characters, testimonials
and native landscapes, at once erotic, humorous and tragic. It is as if Luna’s only
way to rebuild his lizard-shaped home-island-homeland was to buttress memory with
brush stokes and color.
This angst notwithstanding, he adapted his anthropological language to the experience
of the continent. The visual drama of his already replete iconography became further
enriched by the idiosyncrasy of his new milieu. Luna never abandoned the truly vernacular
themes of his native culture; instead, he infused them with the most contemporary
aesthetic expression while preserving the influence of the Havana School  and
most particularly that of Carlos Enríquez, Marcelo Pogolotti and Wifredo Lam. What
is undeniable, however, is that the twelve years that Luna lived in Mexico define
another stage of his creativity; one could state that there was cultural osmosis
His insatiable quest for definition and meaning takes him to the Mexican muralists,
particularly to the work of Rufino Tamayo, José Guadalupe Posada and Francisco Toledo.
New referents join the amalgam of those already mastered. He discovers amate paper
and the advantages of this hand-made product as support for graphics. He begins to
study the Mexican codex  and methodology used by folk artists in working with
Luna’s work thus acquired a mild Mexican flair that incorporated the brilliant chromatic
repertory so frequently found in Mexican art, and assimilated certain referents of
the local culture. This is clearly seen in the way Luna begins to represent Death,
the macabre icon that Maestro Posada exorcised into a secular and festive motif,
and which Luna incorporates into several of his paintings, like in Se Te Acabó El
Mamey Cabrón (2003). Formally, the intensity of colors is thoughtfully subdued by
Luna’s sense of equilibrium of the very values he uses to achieve the intended gradation.
Luna never accommodates representation to any given stylistic transformation. One
could affirm the contrary: that although the hybrid character of Luna’s intellect
has widened and diversified his options of expression, each cultural “mutation”,
each cross breeding with segments of extraterritorial –non-Cuban- cultures, only
serves to reaffirm his belonging to a reality called Cuba.
Carlos Luna and his family settled in Miami in 2003. Coming to South Florida brought
him close to his native Cuban milieu once more. It also allowed him to come in contact
with the most innovative manifestations of Cuban exile art as well as the vanguard
movements in American art. Relocation returns him, to a certain extent, to the coordinates
of his rebellious artistic beginnings. The only difference is that this time his
talent has already flourished, and the new context –with its immense potential for
exploding and communicating his creative wealth- lends itself to the promotion of
an art that by now has traveled throughout numerous exhibition spaces in Latin America
and Europe. If Mexico was the place where he matured conceptually, Miami –already
transforming into a global art emporium- will become the ideal workshop and the platform
he needed in order to spread into academia and the elite of international art collectors.
The American period of this young artist’s work, evenly spread between the island’s
proximity and the impact of cosmopolitan America’s intellectual life, has not inflicted
the pangs of identity negotiation, something to which the creativity of some exiled
artists has been prone. Instead, Luna’s American period has confirmed the recurring
vision that art does belong to a given latitude and that his will to make Cuban visual
anthropology more universal is what tunes in his inspiration and craft to the beat
of periodic vanguards. These are unequivocal signs that to assume one’s roots can
be an unconventional occurrence.
His colossal piece, El Gran Mambo (2006), which he conceived in Miami, sums up Luna’s
career. I consider this his masterpiece. This painting is a sort of fantastic essay
which pays tribute to the epic elements in the works of Pablo Picasso and Mexican
master painters, as well as the wealth of symbols in Wifredo Lam, albeit from Luna’s
own vision of the world. Luna’s formal and thematic journeys are integrated into
this piece. El Gran Mambo is a virtual anthology of the very aspects of Luna’s work
that make of him, in my opinion, the exponent most genuinely Cuban among the artists
who conform the “new art of Cuba.”
There is in Carlos Luna’s work both anecdote and graphic commentary; myth and mysticism;
an element of the erotic, and prejudices; religiosity and Afro Cuban fetishism; pop
with Cuban national referents and irony-drenched kitsch. These are clues that exist
in permanent tension between immediacy and evocation, at once intertwining and regrouping
to recall areas of popular culture not frequently visited by his colleagues. Such
avant-garde re-creation of traditions that dares to take the codes of his identity
to other levels of universal interpretation enables Luna’s work to serve as continuum
of a path previously charted by Cuban vanguard masters.
The captivating result of his work is the fruit of incessant hard labor. Carlos Luna
toils over each piece with feverish detail, starting with the meticulous way in which
he prepares the work’s support, and how he perfects every trace during the initial
stages of painting in order to define distinctly the visual effect he has chosen.
Far from making a statement in itself, the surface texture is generally subdued.
To accomplish this effect, the artist works long and strenuous hours at giving the
canvas the terseness of stretched hide, as if shaping the surface of a drum.
To attain such great depth of color and the ornate filigrees typical of his works,
Luna toils over his creation like a goldsmith, armed with brushes of all sizes, spatulas,
chisels, self-made tools, and even his own hands. His selection of tones, at times
exhibiting unique values; his clever distribution of light; and the voluminous details
he incorporates, complete the rhythmic warmth of an imagery conceived for vibrant
Thus pours forth an unending stream of roosters, knives, elegguas , plants, bulls,
stars, horses, phalluses, airplanes, domestic ware and people. Graphic transposition
revolves around the internal dialogue that transpires on the vernacular stage. Within
its theatrical sub-text there lives a community and its anguish, ceremonies and joys.
We are amidst an ethos –Luna’s own, the Cuban ethos- that is grandiloquent both in
melodrama and in jubilation. What we sense are the jovial and sentimental inhabitants
of his lizard-shaped island-home, and the “scent of coffee” that permeates the itinerary
of Luna’s art.
Written by Jesus Rosado, Miami, Florida, September 2006
Translation: Ileana Fuentes
 Elizabeth Murray (b.1940 in Chicago) is a well known American artist whose work
can be easily recognized: vivid and brilliant colors; seemingly abstract shapes rich
in domestic references such as coffee cups, tables and very vital human figures.
Her compositions are excitingly disconcerting and imbued with suggestive narrative.
She is among the most prominent artists of her generation, and she exerts aesthetic
influence in contemporary art. back
 Lenormant, Francois (1837-1883) was a French Assyriologist and archaeologist.
 The Havana School –la Escuela de La Habana- a term coined by the late Alfred
H. Barr, director of New York’s MOMA during the 1940s, to describe the body of exceptional
and organic aesthetic tendencies generated by the Cuban art vanguard between 1920
and 1940. This vanguard –also known as the first modernist generation of Cuban artists-
reflected a genuinely Cuban modernity in painting. The three painters mentioned in
this essay –Carlos Enríquez, Marcelo Pogolotti and Wifredo Lam- are an integral part
of the Havana School. back
 Sheets of hand-made paper or canvas that often have miniature figures or drawings
in the center of the piece, flanked by hieroglyphics. The codex are very diverse
in nature, depending on the culture from which they originate. back
 Head-shaped clay effigies –also found in amorphous facial forms- representing
Eleggua, the orisha or deity of doorways and crossroads in Afro-Hispanic santería
(a synchretic religion that incorporates West African Lucumí and European Catholic
elements). These effigies are made of items sacred to Eleggua, with cowries for facial
features. They are most commonly placed behind or near doors for protection, or kept
on altars to receive offerings (ebó) made to the orisha. back