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Contemporary Cuban painter Carlos Luna exhibits at the Frost Art Museum in Miami
The exhibition focuses on discrete cycles of work, including the world premiere of a number of ceramic works produced at the famed Talavera Pottery in Puebla, Mexico as well as fine art tapestries featuring the artist's work, woven by Magnolia Editions.

By: Barbaro Martinez Ruiz

MIAMI, FLA.- Green Machine: The Art of Carlos Luna surveys the extensive body of work of Carlos Luna, one of the foremost contemporary Cuban artists, explores the concerns with the passage of time and the evocative nature of memory and imagination that motivate it, and delves into the rich Cuban rural culture upon which it draws.

Through his art, Luna seeks to replace what he views as a Cuban preoccupation with politically charged western notions and over-reliance on external contemporary art trends with a prouder vision of Cuban national identity that uses art to construct a realm of pride, innovation, and renewal. Central to this process is Luna’s focus on Cuba’s oft-forgotten rural culture and its contribution to broader Cuban society. Luna encourages his Cuban audience to learn how to understand their culture and to unlearn historical elitist and politically charged notions, allowing for an embrace of the ambiguity inherent in being both part of Western socio-political history and seeking to forge a uniquely diverse artistic cultural identity.

Luna views and presents painting as a treasure, distinguishing it from other media in its potential to offer seemingly unlimited possibilities for extolling what Cubans rarely find in their daily life: an imagery that transcends physical boundaries; a visual tradition that transcends cultural divisions; and a guiding moral philosophy that transcends politics. The commitment evidenced throughout Luna’s career to the medium of painting is honored in this exhibition, as are his efforts to experiment beyond it in recent years. Starting with paintings that exemplify the artist’s skill, his personal creed and his engagement with popular wisdom and the uncertainty of modern life, the exhibition examines the manner in which Luna’s work aims to unite an increasingly divided nation by providing it with a means to shift from a national myopic view to an identity bolstered by more specific cultural references. It traces the artist’s integration of idiosyncratic and politically edgy commentaries with accessible vistas, highlights his efforts to provoke debate about social harmony and challenges audiences to wrestle with arguments about the role of an observer and society’s predisposition for beauty.

The displayed pieces traverse Luna’s technical approach to composition – his varied use of paint, charcoal, unusual textures and surfaces, choice of color and incorporation of verbal aids to articulate a concept of ‘beauty’ that builds upon the promise of verbal function – and his treatment of complex themes through sensually charged erotic depictions and sparkling political and moral observations expressed with a false political innocence. Collectively, they produce a verbal-visual punch of cathartic honesty and map the artist’s ultimately optimistic journey from Cuba to Mexico and on to the United States.

[The title Green Machine alludes to the importance of the rain forest known as ‘El Monte,’ which represents a threshold or sacred space in Afro-Cuban historical traditions as well as in the popular imagination of the Cuban people. The idea of a living forest embodies the profound psychic connection associated with Africa as a place of origin, a source of all vitality, a spiritual fountain that constantly transforms itself into a primary source of healing. The machine signifies something that works and carries out the fundamental activity of nature—the continuity of life—guaranteed by the enlivening and empowering of its force. The expression “green machine” conveys the idea of the vital source, the spiritual world, which man must discover or enter in order to find meaning. In Carlos Luna’s work the “green machine” is a metaphor for the artist leaving behind the experiences associated with his rural past to bring about the contemplation of the present moment.]

Room One: Challenging the Past
Empingated (Awesome), Dale, Dale, Huye (Giddy Up and Run Away) and El Gran Mambo (The Great Mambo) are three paintings that introduce visual principles central to Carlos Luna’s work. Early in his career, Luna developed a unique way of incorporating iconic symbols such as scissors, knives, pyramids, triangles, trees, bows and arrows, stars and horseshoes, across the surface of his paintings. Depicting these varied images in a conventional style and highlighting their pictographic quality, Luna isolates them using techniques such as graphite drawing, atmospheric backgrounds and high contrast composition. His experimentation with these conventional visual principles in the 1990s allowed him the space to develop a new vocabulary of form, structure and conceptual visual methods while referencing work by other Cuban artists such as Wifredo Lam’s The Jungle, 1944 and Hurricane, 1946, Sosa Bravo’s Tribute to Almodovar, 1995 and Umberto Peña’s Aayyy, Shas, I Can’t Stand it Anymore, 1967.

There is tension evident in these three paintings, a need to emancipate the symbols from their own isolation in order to articulate more concrete ideas and create a visual narrative through their interactions. This tension, the vacuum created by the calligraphic impulse and its attendant sense of horror, forges what we recognize as Luna’s style. Luna takes this graphic impulse further than the artists he references, developing a comprehensive analysis of forms grounded in specific cultural experiences, moral paradigms and religious awakening. By incorporating this repertoire of images into his paintings, Luna alludes to literary tradition, drawing on the rich Yoruba Ifa tradition, to build his own narrative.

Luna’s recursive sense of memory is also demonstrated by his weaving of iconic images into a visual narrative told through ceramic and steel plate etchings. Both the ceramic and metal series utilize a doubling tactic that creates an echo effect for the referenced memories and results in a perceptual distance from that being remembered like that achieved by the illusionary use of mirrors. This distance indicates a deep ambivalence to the act of remembering and memory itself while plates themselves are a vehicle for the depiction of iconic images drawn from the artist’s own memory of Cuban everyday rural life. Made by the artist in Mexico using the ancient talavera ceramic technique, the plates are notable for their beauty and delicate handiwork. This fragile material is an appropriate vessel for images of fleeting moments and emphasizes the tension between the transient, ephemeral nature of memory and imagination and the fixed physical form of an object used to provide nourishment.

Room Two: Realm, Icon and Memory
Reflecting on challenges inherent in articulating the idea of Cuba, Luna is interested in what it means to be a guajiro (peasant), and how guajiros, especially from Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, present themselves to the world. In depicting peasant’s festivities, cultural practices and interior scenes, Luna explores rural customs and references a frequent theme in Cuban art that began with the traveling narrative tradition of colonial European printmakers. Luna revisits this tradition, but repaints the distinctive iconography of the rural Cuba using more allegorical suggestions and redeploying the rural subjects as forgotten heroes. As he reconfigures the ordinary peasant, so too does Luna reimagine political figures, using caricature to depict former Cuban president Fidel Castro in Robo-Ilusion and challenging Castro’s otherwise iconic representation in popular culture. The depicted transformation from peasant to ruler to an elderly figure awaiting the end uses the train’s metaphorical passage of time to confront the historical archetype of an all-powerful leader.

Luna’s work in this room was also influenced by the still life painting tradition of bodegones in colonial Spain and pre-1959 Cuba, in which the interiors of houses in the countryside as well as in metropolitan centers were captured in intimate detail. Luna references the genre’s distinctive attention to the detail of daily interior life in his depiction in La Mesa (The Table) of the traditional tablecloth found in every dining room in Pinar del Rio. His two-dimensional representation of this iconic rural object plays with the idea of what culture is “popular” and calls to mind pop artists Andy Warhol, Alex Katz, Robert Rauschenberg, Tom Wesselmann and Roy Lichtenstein. The image’s flatness also raises questions regarding the nature of memory, of how we individually and nationally remember objects that define us culturally and personally. The centrally situated rooster in La Mesa also references the rural themes seen in much of Luna’s work, a subject shared with El Gallo Negro (The Black Rooster). Central to a guajiro’s daily routine, roosters also evoke an Ifa literary reference, the Ogunda Dio story of Orunmila, in which a rooster announces the future and acts to protect the interior of a home.

Also referencing the Ifa divination system central to Yoruba religious practice, Black Bite is, like El Gallo Negro, from Luna’s 2014 “black series”, comprised of paintings dominated by the color black and various shades of gray. The interaction between low values of light dominate Black Bite’s surface, creating a mysterious atmosphere. The sense of unanswered questions created by such atmospheric effects suggest the need for divination and allude to the ambience set in Yoruba moral tales used to impart ethical notions to the person who is the subject of the divination. For Luna, these atmospheric descriptions are formulated through art, giving graphic expression to a literary metaphor and using visual elements to emphasize the continued viability of moral archetypes in the contemporary world.

Room Three: Reimagining Narrative
This room focuses on Carlos Luna’s most recent work (2014-2015) and emphasizes his use of series as a strategy through which to revisit themes introduced in his earlier works. Shifting from painting and drawing to woven tapestries, Luna explores new modes of incorporating Ifa literary adages into his work and seeks to portray Ifa divination as a harmonious system for the understanding and management of all creation. Viewing art as a metaphor, Luna challenges the audience’s preconceptions by providing repeated opportunities to rediscover what has been represented before on different surfaces and through other visual effects.

This tapestry series emerged from a collaboration between the artist and Magnolia Editions, a fine art studio in Oakland, California, that ambitiously sought to shift Luna’s work from analogue to digital production. Luna created individual sketches and extremely detailed works on paper that Magnolia translated into a digital rendering to be fed into the mechanical loom weaving the tapestry. The seven large tapestries that comprise the series – Bailaora, In the Garden, Dreamer, Catalina’s Mirror, Who Eats Whom, Sometimes, and Heartbreaker – evidence Luna’s signature style of visually delightful, graffiti-like scrawls that subvert the calligraphic gestures of artists like Jackson Pollock into more stable, or literary, visual references and then introduce elements of vernacular culture into mainstream artistic practice. Some of the important Ifa philosophical concepts interrogated by Luna’s pictorial technique are the interrelated notions of ori (inner or spiritual head), edo (sacrifice) and iwapele (good character). These three complementary concepts also allude to the interplay of Yoruba culture in Nigeria, Cuba and Southern Florida, and Luna is attempting to find a visual form capable of expressing both the complexity of these relationships and a clear understanding of the underlying religious concepts.

Tapestry proves an ideal medium for capturing such details, as it stacks multiple surfaces and effects to create a deep field of woven layers with alternating vibrant and somber colors. This layered treatment and the hyper attention to detail it requires establish an intimate rapport between Luna’s work and the viewer. This intimacy mirrors the artist’s own relationship with the tapestry’s surface during the production process and places the audience inside such process, simultaneously unveiling the secret of making and questioning one’s way of seeing. The tension between the neat images seen from afar and the almost infinite level of abstraction when the details are viewed at close range is also a visual metaphor for the process of divination itself, the arriving at a broader message from the component details derived from individual readings.

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