Carol Cheh
Los Angeles, CA 2010

Born in Cuba in 1969, Carlos Luna has always been an artist; he recalls making a painting of his mother at the age of seven. His prodigious talent was recognized and nurtured from an early age, as he distinguished himself at four successive art schools and began showing in exhibitions and receiving prizes at the age of 15. By the end of the 1980s, he was a well-known artist in his native country; he had also, however, exhausted the opportunities that were available to him in the rigid political climate of the time. Thus, in 1991, he emigrated to Puebla, Mexico, where he lived until 2002. He also met his wife, Claudia, there and started a family with her. In 2003, Luna moved his family to Miami, where they now make their home.


That is the very short version of the Carlos Luna story. Embedded within that basic storyline is an endless wealth of artistic influences: his childhood growing up in the Cuban countryside, his education in Cuba’s excellent art schools, the new perspectives and practices he acquired while living in Mexico, his relationship with his family, and the new opportunities he is now enjoying in America. Luna is a man who is extremely connected to and respectful of his past, and it is his many histories, both personal and cultural, that form the substance of his work. His paintings, drawings, sculptures, and ceramic pieces are layered with as much complex symbolism and tradition as they are with meticulously applied materials.

During the weeks leading up to Luna’s major solo exhibition at Heather James Fine Art, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the artist and his wife, Claudia—who is his muse, his advisor, and his English translator—for an in-depth discussion of several of the works in the show. What follows is an exploration of these works guided by the Lunas’ generous explanations, but also framed by my own analyses.


Horoscopo las Estrellas (Star Horoscope)

Horoscopo las Estrellas presents a strong, iconic image that could be said to encapsulate the artist’s vision of his own identity. A typically dressed guajiro, or Cuban man of the countryside, stands in the center of the canvas, surrounded by stars on all sides; as in many of his paintings, this guajiro also serves as Luna’s own alter ego. A horse stands behind him. Both of his hands are painted quite large, playing a prominent role in the image.


According to many spiritual beliefs and popular customs, the left hand is the one that receives, while the right hand is the one that gives. In this painting, Luna’s left hand rests on the horse, which to him symbolizes the Cuban countryside where he was born and raised—the place that gives him his roots and his spiritual sustenance. His right hand reaches up to the sky, where it is touched by two of the stars; according to Luna, this represents his feeling that the stars blessed his hands with the ability to be an artist.


Other writers on Luna’s work have brought up the “macho” culture of Cuba, and claimed that the horse functions as a symbol of Latino masculinity. Luna disagrees with this interpretation, feeling instead that the horse here symbolizes a strong rural connection to the earth. He says that the horse in this painting is actually a mare, and points out the way her head bows down to the ground, indicating a gentle nature.


Luna’s powerful connection to his origins are further seen in the clothes worn by the guajiro. On the left side of his jacket is an image of the Cuban flag. Above the flag, a half-moon face peeks out from the breast of the jacket; this face represents Elegguá, a mythical deity who often appears in Luna’s works. In the Yorùbá religious tradition, which originated in Africa and is also practiced in Cuba, Elegguá is the guardian of the crossroads who can both open and close the doors of opportunity. Luna employes Elegguá as a sort of guardian of his paintings; he sits looking at the viewer, and will make the decision to let that person into the painting or not. So how does one gain entry into Luna’s paintings? Actually, it is not difficult. According to popular lore, Elegguá is a little boy who has only to be appeased with candy and toys. As a viewer, one has only to have an open mind.


Another remarkable aspect of this painting is the textures visible on both the man and the horse; the curving, sinewy lines clearly represent muscle mass on the horse, and they also resemble an x-ray view of the man’s flesh, even though he appears to be fully clothed. Luna says that this is a deliberate optical illusion—rather than covering the man up, he wants to reveal all of his layers, from clothing down to muscle and bone. This transparency of physical layers speaks to the layers of history that make up every person; a man is not simply a man, but a product of his family, his schooling, his country, etc. Luna points out that the color of the horse matches the orange highlights seen on the clothes of the man, reinforcing the connection between the two.


Catalina la Modista (Catalina the Dressmaker)

Catalina is Claudia Luna’s middle name, and it is also Carlos’ term of endearment for his wife. In Catalina la Modista, we see Claudia portrayed as a dressmaker, surrounded by the tools of her trade—scissors and a sewing machine on a table. Claudia’s parents owned a children’s clothing factory in Mexico, and when she met her husband, she was working in the factory as a designer and sales associate. This painting, in which Claudia is adorned by an exquisitely embroidered dress, is obviously a loving tribute by the artist to his wife. It is also, however, a subtle acknowledgment of the role that the sewing machine has played in the lives of the women in his own family. Luna’s grandmother knew how to sew, but was indifferent to the machine. His mother had the desire to sew, but did not know how. Layers of ambivalent history are present here, and all of it is presided over by Elegguá, whose presence is once again seen in the center of the piece.


La Anunciación (The Annunciation)

While it has a lofty title rife with religious and art historical associations, La Anunciación is about that most common of day-to-day occurrences: gossip. A woman plays the central role in this painting, and the news that she shares with others forms long ribbons that wend their way throughout the canvas like roads. A figure on the right, signified by a vague face and a leg, appears to be the main recipient of her news. Inside of the woman’s torso, we see a ribcage made up of eyes, signifying the number of people who are present within the conversation when gossip is shared, whether these are people listening, or people who are being gossiped about. To the left is a rooster, who as the announcer of daybreak, takes the place of the angel Gabriel in this scene. In the upper left corner of the canvas, the woman’s right hand brushes against Elegguá, who in this painting takes the shape of a house, representing the domestic spaces where gossip is often shared.


Popular art has a long history of taking famous religious scenes like the Annunciation and applying them to ordinary situations, sometimes to comic or cynical effect. This painting, a chronicle of day-to-day existence, reflects Luna’s own belief that popular culture is the backbone of all cultural expression.


Te Quiero (I Love You)

A proclamation of love, Te Quiero sings with musicality, seeming to leap off the canvas with jubilation. While it is not a portrait of a musician per se, Luna does admit that music is always playing in the background as he works in his studio, which may help to explain the rich vibrancy found in all of his paintings. Te Quiero is a joyous depiction of the electric feeling between Luna and his wife when they exchange the words, I love you. A telephone line and strings of eyes symbolize the vivid communication between them, and a light bulb next to Luna represents the way the room “lights up” when they express their love. In this picture, Elegguá has a special place sitting in the artist’s lap; after years of Elegguá carrying him through life, Luna is now returning the favor. Elegguá here can also be an indirect reference to children (the Lunas have three).


Mama Luna (Mother Moon) and Florerito (The Florist)

In these two works the visual environment dramatically shifts, as we see Luna working with amate, a handmade bark paper crafted in Mexico. Used by the ancient Aztecs to create their codices and surviving today through Otomi religious customs, amate paper is harvested from a variety of native trees, and has a delicate, sponge-like texture. It is difficult to work with, requiring the use of only natural pigments. Here, Luna has applied gouache on charcoal to create his imagery.


Mama Luna started out as a companion piece to Papa Luna, which currently resides with a private collector. The two drawings are portraits of Claudia and Carlos, but with an added reference to their shared last name, which means “moon” in Spanish. In Claudia’s portrait, she rides sidesaddle on a horse, and is surrounded by full moons on all sides, while Elegguá peeks out from underneath. In Carlos’ portrait, not shown here, he is surrounded by half moons. This signifies the artist’s romantic belief that women are perfect and complete in themselves, while men are always missing something, always in search of something, which is perhaps why they constantly endeavor to achieve things on the worldly plane.


In Florerito, we see what for Luna is perhaps the defining theme of this exhibition— the joy and gratitude of life, expressed through the beauty of ornamentation. A man sits astride a horse, his head and hand tilted up to the sky as though in exaltation. All around him, flowers fall as Elegguá sits firmly beneath his feet. The man depicted, the florist, has been blessed with a fortunate life, and he must give something of himself back to the heavens in order to show his gratitude. The blue of the flowers is a particularly vibrant mix of three mineral blues, including a French ultramarine.


This joy that Luna takes in craftsmanship and decoration will be further amplified in the Heather James exhibition through custom wall installations that the artist will make in order to complement the works on display. For example, the Florerito drawing will be surrounded by painted flowers, and the Horoscopo las Estrellas painting will rest against a bank of painted stars. Devised especially for this exhibition, these tapestry-like displays will cease to exist upon the exhibition’s close, but may be recreated for future installations.


Ceramic Works

Along with his work on amate paper, ceramics is another practice that was added to Luna’s repertoire during the years that he lived in Mexico. He actually began studying ceramics while still a student in Cuba, but it wasn’t until he lived in Puebla that he gained extensive exposure to that region’s celebrated Talavera school of ceramics. He was instantly attracted to its lively, colorful qualities and soon took to learning its elaborate process, which requires multiple firings of a special clay that comes only from the Puebla region.


Talavera ceramics have a long history that dates back to medieval Spain. Many of the designs that are associated with the style today were invented in the Spanish town of Talavera de la Reina. In the 16th century, the Talavera craft was brought to Puebla, Mexico by Dominican monks. It flourished in this location thanks to its fine natural clays and demand from local churches and monasteries. Over the centuries, the style has incorporated Italian, North African, Middle Eastern, Chinese, and indigenous Mexican influences, and it continues to evolve to this day. Puebla, which is home to numerous ceramics studios, is known worldwide as the center for production of authentic Talavera pottery.


Luna, who travels to Puebla to pursue this practice, has great respect for the tradition. He extracts elements of his own work to make fine examples of Talavera decorative plates; on each plate is featured an iconic Luna motif, such as a rooster, a horse, or a guajiro. For the Heather James exhibition, Luna is showing 28 of these plates in a four-by-seven grid. Although the plates will be sold individually, he considers this grid to be a singular work with a strong vibrancy of its own. As with the other works in the show, the grid of plates will be enhanced by a custom site-specific display crafted by the artist.


In this frenetic, fast-paced world of ours that often feels spiritually and psychologically disconnected, Carlos Luna’s body of work can offer something of a welcome respite. It is true that the richness of his symbolism can at first be daunting to the newcomer, seeming to employ some kind of secret pictorial code. But if one follows the lead of Elegguá and enters the work with an open mind, one soon finds themes and sentiments that are universally familiar—love, family, pride, gratitude, struggle, conflict. One also finds something that can be hard to come by in this age: a humble and honest appreciation of the real.