Carlos Luna: The Artist as He Is
By Jaime Moreno Villarreal ©
When a painting of Carlos Luna is contemplated for the first time, its volumetric
paradox assails and enhances the bi-dimension even though it is extremely turgid.
The background perspective is often shortened or annulled while the foregrounds are
huge. The roundness of the design modeled by color gradations and very contrasted
iridescent colors, although they suggest pronounced volumes, they mechanically accentuate
the composition’s geometry, privileging the articulation of figures and sections
on the bulk effect. In this way, the triumph of the outline and the fragmentation
over the profundity produce a captivity sensation of spaces and bodies.
Would it be too evident to relate this volumetry, this authentic captive turgidity
to Cuba’s insularity, both to “the damned circumstance of the water everywhere” as
the painter expresses it in one of his works, as well as to his people’s confinement,
manifested by this recurrent figure of an airplane – always an airplane from Cubana
de Aviación Company – that crosses the skies of his paintings? It is too obvious
but possible. This plastic captivity sensation, perpetually emancipating, can also
be found with several tints in the work of other exiled Cubans, such as Jose Bedia
and Segundo Planes. On Carlos Luna’s paintings the figures of fractionated limbs
suggest marionettes – and let us remember that one of the greatest topics of the
marionette is the contradiction between its dream of liberty and the subjugation
to which it is submitted.
The dynamic fragmentation of Carlos Luna’s figures, although it flaunts the joints
and articulations of the marionette, it keeps relation, of course, to the futuristic
iconoclasm and to other avant-garde gestures, for example the superposed surfaces
of cubism. In fact, the Cuban painter seems to have separated the value of painting
from the historic futurism as drama expressed by form and color, and on proposing
a social Cuban theater on his painting, he seems to assent to the maxim expressed
by Pallazzeschi, “instead of stopping in the dark of pain, it shall be crossed with
impetus to enter in the light of laughter”. Luna superimposes humor to the crudest
images. This feature links him, of course, to other modern tradition: the cult to
the acrobat and to the circus clown as occasion heroes and actors of a perpetual
In this way the painter is presenting a “sociality”. Whether as the background of
undercover desperation after sexual feat, whether as idiocy or madness that reach
esthetic redemption or as a yearning and a premonition that project through a medium
across light cones which appear from the women’s eyes, on Carlos Luna’s painting
there is an invitation to get acclimatized to the world’s vision that arises from
his reference social group between the margins of the obligatory civil life. Cuba
is next to its nature, curse, rare harmony and genius. The personages of these paintings
sprout eminently from a biographic background.
Carlos Luna was born on January 2nd 1969 in San Luis, a tobacco-grower town in the
State of Pinar del Rio. His provincial and rural origin has been captured in one
of his distinctive personages: this country man with a moustache who wears a hat,
arrogant, macho, impulsive, sometimes abusive but who also knows how to be loyal
and who Luna calls “El Guajiro Compaysico”, a compatriot who is substantially represented
as an obsessed man on the painting El Mirón (1988). The artist exhibits the frenetic
vitality explosion of his fellow citizens. From the provident background of childhood
arise not only great part of elements that form his iconography (the rooster, the
bull, the horse, the “manigua” or woodland, the voluptuous woman, the airplane, the
bust of Martí) but also the anecdotes in which his paintings are based. Many of
them reproduce some event or occasion lived or fantasized in his hometown. Luna
stages a play where the ridiculous incident intertwines with the historic ephemeris,
troubles with ladies with political conjuncture and passional crime with own temperament;
gossip, joke and tragedy make the private and mundane textile of his people: graceful
and terrible dance of libido and repression. All appearance is metamorphosed in desire.
The painter’s eye took root in this wonderful and sexual micro-cosmos. It welcomes
the notoriety of what could be banal and rescues his playing value. It is an eye
that inquires everything, that winks with irony, it half-closes with sympathy, it
is roundly surprised and finds its symbol in this Elegguá face masks that always
appear attested on their fabrics. In the Yoruba religion, Elegguá is an intermediary
divinity between men and nature. Small round heads represent him. He is a little
saint, a nosy boy. Carlos Luna has made this figure a primordial symbol of his iconography,
as it was at some moment on the painting of Wifredo Lam. Elegguá represents communication
and destiny; he helps in decisions, opens and closes paths. He is a gossiper and
a watchman. As a mask – or better: half a mask, like disguises of the commedia dell’arte—
his graphic functionality can be incorporated to any section or figure of the painting
and this makes him perfectly useful for the theater. Elegguá looks at everything.
Elegguá embodies everything. The sun is the moon, it is a bulb; it reminds us every
moment the footlights of the theater forum.
This forum that effectively adopts features of a puppet show keeps a key of cultural
richness lived like a show. Cuba appears on the pictorial work of Carlos Luna as
a great theater and in his memory of artist there are many stages, cockfight arenas
and platforms that are intercrossing. His very sharp conscience of social theater
surely comes from the resource towards entertainment that in Cuba acquires intensive
education proportions. Being student of art schools, the painter must obligatory
attend classes during years, every week, several days a week, ballet, concerts, music
contests, theater contests. There he met heaven and hell of masterful and detestable
shows. With time, theater by obligation saturated him. No more concerts, shows,
not even the circus. Intensive education acquires indoctrination shimmers. It has
to be added to this, the great political theater of “revolutionary acts” staged every
Friday under the sun at elementary schools, the theater of multitudinous meetings
mended with endless discourses and the reunions of the Revolutionary Defense Committee
hatched with good faith blackmail and espionage. The modest puppet stage that Carlos
Luna admired in his childhood comes out from his memory, almost defensively, and
one of the personages, the old man who told lies, was a parody of Fidel Castro. The
hero merges and confuses with the buffoon. The great purity reveals into great
deformation, the historic feat is also a great charade, the civil and disciplinary
order of everyday life does not result anything but a controlled disorder.
Controlled disorder? Since 1992 Carlos Luna settled in Mexico and he found a propitious
working environment in the City of Puebla de los Angeles. In contrast to Cuba, where
sensuality takes possession in daily life, in the Mexican High Plateau this one tends
to hide. The Mexican dissimulates and attacks, he is reserved and violent, his hypocrisy
still translates the formalities from the novo Hispanic court culture. In Puebla,
Carlos Luna found alternate theater where sexual matters are always latent, enclosed
behind the walls of private matters but insinuated by heavy silences, circulating
under the table. Puebla, a baroque city by excellence, fulfills with inverted reflexes
such controlled disorder that Carlos Luna brought from Cuba.
On his paintings, the space of this disorder, latent and emergent, founds often manifestation
in images of a swollen vegetal nature of genital contours. The plants crack the earth
with their roundness. Agitated dialogues are held between a weed and another one,
which are testicles and glans penis with teats and huge buttocks. It is the “manigua”,
a hot and fertile foliage. Yes, it is the “manigua” of Wifredo Lam, the same one
that was praised by the surrealists and from which Pierre Mabilled exclaimed: “ it
evokes an universe where trees, flowers, fruits and spirits cohabitate thanks to
the dance … life bursts everywhere, free, dangerous, emerging from the most exuberant
vegetation, ready for all mixtures, all transmutations, all possessions …”1 Nature
where the animism retrieves its full image, but at the same time a creation of the
Suddenly, a seminal liquid flows out from the bulb of one of these flowers. The “manigua”
has dyed red. The spirit is carnal. Anything that is votive matches up with intemperance.
The manigua embodies on the painting of Carlos Luna this genetic and lustful atmosphere
that is breathed in Cuba. On the other hand, it is the image of the native land
evoked from exile. Severo Sarduy made the best recreation that I know of this animist
jungle, precisely desde el recuerdo (from remembrance), and I copy a fragment from
All what is straight – cane tubes, long legs without knees, arms’ cylinder – breaks
into a curve: buttocks, liana, hammock and the trajectory across the sky from the
All is ephemeral like the pass of a bird and however fixed, motionless in the dense
air, in the insular calmness of midday.
Or not. A light tremor, a swinging in the swollen leaves, green and white, from the
yagruma, in the strong flowers that drip a transparent and purple slobber, in the
red lines of drunken logs. Something is moving, something is happening: the wind,
the getaway of a slave, the menace of open scissors.
As producer and illuminator of this great theater, Carlos Luna establishes through
the color’s temperature not only psychic states but also he releases real synesthesias.
In this way, in the extensive series of canvas dedicated to the rooster’s figure,
also made with volutes of masculine genitals, the chromaticism often produces the
crowing effect: as per red, blue, yellow or green tonalities – and with the resonance
that the space geometry designs – the spectator listens to the quality of the crowing
according to the time of the day. The rooster, which indicates the time, is also
a kind of stage director. He is the light in some kind of way. He blends with the
sun. He is a creator. He is a macho, the master of the henhouse. He is the bird of
plenitude. But, damn it! In spite of everything, he is a bird that does not fly.
To which spectacle is he introducing us, but to that one of the human condition that
becomes bitterly aware of itself?
Because he is playing here a life experience. Among the popular amusements that marked
the painter’s childhood are the cockfights in first place, which he attended and
they were not legal, indeed. In the town of San Luis there were seven “vallas” or
cockfights arenas. When he was a boy, Carlos Luna was enthusiastic about fighting
cocks. He bred, trained and watched how cocks fought. This passion translates into
his superb birds.
This is a story. Once, an encounter between families was being agreed. Everyone knew
that on Sunday a cockfight would take place, but no one denounced it. In order to
get to the cockfight arena, one had to leave the town and made a long journey trough
the woods and its rough paths, through the most intricate zones of the manigua, obeying
an impulse of tense and festive secrecy. One had to pay to attend the cockfight arena,
meanwhile some watchmen watched from the top of a hill in case the police could approach.
At the upper part of a ranch, hidden in the foliage, there was a big circular pit
excavated in the earth. The attendants placed themselves around it. In order to resist
the intense heat during the fight, the pit was filled with ice blocks. The ice was
covered then with sack blankets and fleshy leaves of guano (palm) were extended on
the jute. Sawdust and straw from the rice grinding were then scattered on them. The
roosters fought there, on the circle that was one meter beneath the floor level.
The fights were occasion of terrible relieves where social fury and impotence sprouted
before political repression. But after a while, the people shared a friendly way.
When the fight was over, the cockfight arenas were camouflaged covering them with
boards and guano. The government knew well about the cockfight arenas, but they were
one of the illegal places that were not much intervened by the authorities.
The cockfight arena gives also shape to this sociality taken to the theater. By means
of the rooster’s figure, Carlos Luna first told local stories on his paintings without
painting the specific protagonists. Afterwards, the painter began to talk about himself
when the figure was made complex and changed into rooster-man. It can be appreciated
that this rooster-man owes much to show business on paintings such as El adiós (1999)
o Serenata pa’ ti (2000), where he appears playing a role. Inside these forums, this
flattened volumetric sensation that we mentioned, assails when a painting of Luna
is contemplated for the first time. It acquires other shimmers. It is not a flattening
in disarray; it is neither a pressing of information nor a lack of perspective. It
is the scene’s reduction to the proscenium strait of a screen, like in the puppet
and shadows theater.
The social function of show business is clarified very soon as a mediation of the
conflict. Carlos Luna remembers that the curious festive institution of his hometown
San Luis keeps: “On Wednesdays, Bolero”, the day when the town gets together in the
Culture House in order to sing. One by one, the amateurs – who are not others than
the neighbors – climb up the stage. A mesh protects them, because if their melody
and intonation are not pleasant, shoes rain along with booing. There, the ladies
take revenge on their husbands, dirty linen is ventilated and contrarieties are adjusted.
If the public show business doesn’t solve the social conflict at least it canalizes
such conflict to an alternate representation. On the painting of Carlos Luna, with
drop curtains, decorations and focal illumination, the spectator contemplates allegorical
episodes of this town of San Luis.
We already mentioned on previous paragraphs that in the marionette tradition a metaphor
is played between the dream of liberty and submission to reality. This is the great
myth of the articulated puppet. Maybe the most famous version would be Pinocchio
by Carlo Collodi: the puppet moves away from the classic automaton (those mechanical
wonders which produce the impression of being endowed with autonomous movement) in
order to act by himself with all will and caprice. Pinocchio is a rebel puppet.
He is playful, disobedient, liar; he does not conform to the role of exemplary hero.
He liberates himself from his creator’s yoke, what puppets dreamt many times. The
personages of Carlos Luna participate in this boasting rebelliousness, in this irreducibility.
They resist being puppets.
It is worth vindicating the puppet and remembering that the marionette theater was
for the painting one of the vital sources of the first Picasso’s iconography, which
the young artist from Malaga witnessed repeatedly at “Els Quatre Gats” in Barcelona
and whose wooden puppets were related to Pierrot and Harlequin. And of course, the
cinema is not foreign to this stage. See for example Carlos Luna’s rooster-man, in
love, offering flowers in “Dile que me diga que sí (2000)” (Tell her to tell me yes).
The painting is framed by drop curtains. Isn’t there something about a Charles Chaplin
in love with Mary Pickford or Virginia Cherrill? The fact that a plausible marionette
reminds us a Charlot in love, is it perhaps because the marionette is an articulated
model of Chaplin’s mimic art? Of course: a fundamental part of Chaplin’s silent efficiency
consists in putting a marionette-man to act freely among men, endowing his mechanized
movements with the final emotion of being self-determined: final metaphor of the
Charlot was undoubtedly one of the inspirers of the avant-garde theater and ballet
of the 20th Century, in which some of the most illustrious painters participated
(among them Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Gris, Braque, de Chirico, Miró, Larionov and
Goncharova). Some of his staging turned to this puppet symbol of human freedom represented
by Harlequin, with all trouppe of the commedia dell’arte, which now we see rearticulated
by a country Cuban personage, the Guajiro Compaysico and a rooster that perhaps reminds
us Chanticleer. Compare the articulation of Soy Guajiro compay, ¡soy! with one
of the actors of the Skating Ring ballet, created by Fernand Léger in 1921 for Swedish
Ballets, inspired by Chaplin [fig. 1]. Obviously, there is an ambient of industrial
automatism in Léger. But what unites both “mimes” in the level of scenic tradition
is the marionette’s mechanic.
It seems that the Guajiro Compaysico, armed with his machete, doesn’t have anything
to do with the pacific Charlot. But let us remember that the cinema mime used also
his cane as a weapon. Both personages send us necessarily to puppets that used a
garrote to take the law into their own hands. In 1895 a chronicler transcribed the
blows that a marionette called “Cristobita” gave with a stick during a puppet show,
in the following way: “The heroes of dramas that fill up the scene today, solve the
most unsolvable problems making use of a dagger, sword, poison or revolver. Cristobita
uses a stick. The club which he uses to crush his impertinent creditors, false friends,
the unfortunate one who poses his eyes on his wife, all those who confront him with
actions and words... If he loses his head, neither civil power nor military power
mean anything to him.”
Turning to the marionette in order to talk about the human condition and about man’s
freedom is very ancient. This appears in Plato already. In his “allegory in the cavern”
he uses the theme of Puppet Theater to talk about the perception of reality. If a
group of men chained from their legs and necks since they were kids, impeded to turn
around, would always contemplate the shadows cast on the wall of some figures that
are on a stage behind their backs, they would think that this is reality. (La República,
514-519). If in the “allegory in the cavern” Plato used the simile of the shadows
theater, it was in the Laws where he used the marionette as metaphor of the man.
The men could be considered as marionettes fabricated by gods. The internal strings
that move them are conducted by opposite forces, which incline them to perform opposite
actions, either towards virtue or towards vice. According to the philosopher, the
man shall only obey one string, resisting pulls from others, the string of reason
There is a submission image in marionettes but there is also a way of liberation.
What is there in Carlos Luna’s theater of painting that appeals so much to contemporary
The invisible artist is one of the wonderful themes of the puppets’ world. Who is
the one behind the curtain, the one who moves the wires; whose hand gives life to
the puppet? When the puppet show is over, the invisible artist comes out of the forum
to receive applause. The effect could not be more disappointing. The public expects
maybe that the puppeteer resembles his puppets, as if the God of that world should
be made according to the image and resemblance of his creatures. But he is not, not
entirely. This disappointment is the show’s end and it covers the puppet theater
with a particular nobility: the artist on showing himself as he is, he is revealing
a fundamental key of art, the wakefulness.
The theater’s wakefulness: the painting of Carlos Luna.
Mexico, DF October, 2001
 Severo Sarduy, “La jungla”, El Cristo de la rue Jacob, en Obra completa, t. I,
Madrid, Galaxia Gutenberg, Col. Archivos, pp. 73-74. back
 J. Gestoso y Pérez, art. cit. in Francisco Porras, Titelles: Teatro popular,
Madrid, Editora Nacional, 1981, p. 216. back