LADIES FIRST: THE ART OF CARLOS LUNA
One of the foremost contemporary Cuban American artists, Carlos Luna is part of a generation of Latin Americans who embrace their strong heritage and traditions while reinventing themselves along the way. Luna tells stories and narrates fables through detailed and richly painted canvases, mixed media works on paper, lavish tapestries, ceramics, mosaics, sculptures, and installations. He creates a symbolic visual language to differentiate his art as personal and recognizable. After using this language as a source for his imagery, he works diligently, almost obsessively, to bring his subjects to life according to his own stylistic and technical rules. Over the years, he has mastered a particular painting approach that involves a systematic procedure using bold outlines and patterns for lively effects. There is nothing static about his focus, the process, or the results. The process becomes fundamental to everything he makes and is easily transferable to sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, and tapestries. It is a practice that reveals a distinguished cast of characters, from family to friends to iconic Cuban personalities, and a careful selection of objects associated with his life experiences. He brings them to life, and they evoke memories and provide a myriad of opportunities to invent the themes for his work. His subjects do not exist in the world of reality as tangible physical references. Each is carefully chosen for its meaning to him and his journey, from Cuba to Mexico to the United States.
In Luna’s work, there are numerous recurring themes and motifs. The women – the ladies – always come first, whether they are the subject or included as a subtle or obvious reference – the power behind the throne. His art is a tribute to creative force, strength, and delicacy as he honors the women in his life: his grandmother, mother, wife, and daughter. The artist remembers his grandmother’s advice, and her words seem to be the common thread connecting his work. Her guidance helped him to move through the complexities of life, and her words are woven like a thread as he transitions from medium to medium. As a gift to her and in her memory, he has created a collection of beautiful hand-embroidered handkerchiefs that records her words in phrases both familiar and prescient. Each one exhibits the same natural aesthetic facility and attention to detail found on the various surfaces he creates for all his work. He has also transferred his work into tapestries that reflect his ability to take an age-old “craft” associated with “women’s work” and elevate it into a contemporary and personal statement. His tapestries bring modern respect to the skills of the women in his family and the generations of men and women working with thread and dedicated to the Fiber Arts. The large and impressive tapestries take his familiar subjects and magnify their significance, bringing attention to each character’s role in dramatic new ways.
“Memories of my grandmother knitting transport me to places I call home. I’ve always wanted to express myself through thread and found woven tapestries to be the ideal medium for my artistic language.”
Women are the keepers of the hearth, the land, and the origin of all creation. Carlos Luna recognizes women’s ability to be multifaceted. He puts his heart and soul into their image with a reverence not often found in art today. His paintings depict women regally sitting wearing lavish skirts that seem to twirl as if in motion. They dance in musical harmony, as visions of love and romance. They are maternal and loving. They preside over the home and the land; their stories continue family traditions and become the allegories of daily life for generations to come. The women are often portrayed as hieratic and timeless as the silhouettes of ancient Egyptian reliefs or in constant motion. They are vibrant personalities, lovers, mothers, or sweet and sentimental, gazing into a mirror and surrounded by flowers.
Memories of coffee brewing and the robust smells in a kitchen brimming over with love during meal preparation and enjoyment are given visual attention in numerous works over the years, especially when they depict his grandmother. Grandmother Juliana is the subject of Café Caliente, Juliana (Hot Coffee, Juliana), 2004. A sewing machine, used or not, is significant to Luna’s domestic scenes. She stands in a bright, curtained room surrounded by flowers and roosters (the symbol of male virility). She boldly confronts her husband, holding his cafecito, with the message that she will never use that Singer sewing machine and would manage her own domestic agenda. This is quite a statement for a traditional Cuban woman, obviously asserting her independence and ability to choose for herself. She did not use the machine until Carlos was born, when she decided to.
Continuing his fascination with the role of women in a household setting, Luna painted La Mia (Mine), 2012 for friends whose relationship was reminiscent of that in his own family, especially with the coffee pot and memories of the aromas coming from his grandmother’s kitchen. As the woman points at the coffee pot, preparing her daily cup, the man, in the guise of a rooster, points at her, saying: “Es la mia” to proudly refer to his wife and family as his own. The woman is always in the center, the origin, the balance. His life and that of the family revolve around her presence as the dominant image of the work. He may fancy himself the proud rooster, but she is giving the orders. The ubiquitous rooster, a stalwart badge of male virility, has long been a symbol of Cuba, the countryside, and masculine strength. In the works of Carlos Luna, his presence signals pride and courage, not necessarily male domination. Faced against the woman, the rooster is a backyard pet, colorful, loud, arrogant, and bold. It is also a colorful animal so delightful for artists to paint.
THE SEWING MACHINE
The sewing machine was a fixture in Carlos Luna’s Cuban household and appears in many works. Interesting for its shape, it can be included as a formal element in a work’s composition. More importantly, the sewing machine plays a symbolic role as a creative tool and memory. Today, his wife and daughter design and sew, and there is still a sewing machine in a prominent place in their home. Elevated on a pedestal in a theatrical setting, the sewing machine in Los años duros de mi madre (The Difficult Years of My Mother), 2008, is displayed as a solitary work of art and represents the challenging years Cuban mothers have had to contend with, domestically and politically. The simplicity of its setting adds a dramatic touch to the scene that signifies the loneliness of divorce for his mother when she and the machine were left behind. The sewing machine may also be seen as symbolic of his wife and daughter. He met Claudia Catalina in Mexico, where she worked with her parents in a children’s clothing factory and learned to design and sew, a career she pursues today. Today, the tradition continues with their daughter, Camila, who also designs and sews. As a teenager, she purchased her own sewing machine by saving the money she, very inventively, earned on projects for her friends. Family life always comes full circle in Luna’s work.
The diptych Papa Luna – Mama Luna, 2013, introduces a traditional Cuban couple, the father presiding over the land on horseback and the mother in charge of everything else. Romantic relations between the sexes are a salient topic for Luna. The sentiments range from flirtation to courtship, to often explicit references to sexual encounters, to the power struggle of Latin lovers brandishing weapons. The quasi-serious, quasi-humorous meeting of the couple in Latin Lovers, 2008, can undoubtedly do much to put the battle of the sexes in perspective. Luna has surrounded the pair with an abundance of observant eyes, flowers, and water in the presence of the ubiquitous Eleguá (the Afro-Cuban orisha/deity who guards the pathways of life, oversees opening the door to the spirit world, and is always present at Santería ceremonies.) It is as if he is asking the deity to conjure a more peaceful resolution to their conflict. The inclusion of references to Afro-Cuban/Afro-Caribbean references reflects traditional culture and its impact on his life. The heartbeat of Cuba is its music, fundamental to Afro-Cuban rituals and life experiences. Music and dancing are essential to understanding Luna’s work. His female figures especially appear in constant motion, dancing to the music as they swirl in their extravagant costumes. Luna always manages to bring his characters to life and to get so much facial expression and body language out of them. The figures are often drawn in silhouette with patterns and shading for details, and they become basic templates for the theatrical performances he describes. Life is theater, and his characters take on numerous dramatic roles. His familiar men and women are constantly engaged in conversation, activities, discussions, and other daily events.
CLAUDIA CATALINA AND CAMILA
His love for his wife Claudia Catalina and daughter Camila becomes the subject of many works, including a jacquard tapestry, Catalina’s Mirror, 2019. An elegant woman stands before a table replete with decorative details. Claudia is the model for his works. She appears as Rosa la Mexicana, 2021, a nod to her Mexican heritage and the vitality of the country’s dancers with their flounced skirts and bright paper flowers. For his daughter, a mosaic titled Camila and Her Flowers, 2018, combines a playful rocking horse with the image of a young lady walking away from the toys into the future, as flowers replace youthful entertainment.
DANCING THROUGH LIFE
Undoubtedly, both women are the inspiration for such works as Bailaora (Dancer), 2014. This jacquard tapestry features a couple engaged in the rapid steps of a dance; their clothing intertwined within the moment’s action. Luna’s ability to convey visual language to different media is another remarkable aspect of his prodigious creativity and production. Beyond drawing and painting on surfaces that range from wood to canvas to handmade amate paper, he has mastered the traditional techniques of ceramics, inspired by the workshops of Talavera in Puebla, Mexico; worked in aluminum and other materials for sculpture; converted his designs with a computer to create tapestries, and designed a variety of unique objects, all in his signature style.
The stylistic and technical characteristics of Luna’s work include heavy outlines, highly abstracted forms, and a dense patterning that is also reminiscent of colonial painting from Mexico and the Andes. His representation of drapery is similar, with its brocade and stenciled effects –done by the artist in a relief technique that is as tactile physically as visually. The tiny dots that outline many of his designs are dabs of opaque paint, meticulously applied with the same obsessive attention to detail that characterizes all his art and is typical of his work ethic. These details give a kind of baroque aesthetic to his surfaces, filled with tiny brushstrokes and a multitude of painterly elements. This strategy of calculated accumulation of widely diverse motifs and signs is also expressive of horror vacui, that fear of emptiness associated with the Latin American baroque. Cuban art has long been linked to this tendency to overload the canvas, just as the houses were filled with lace cloths, stained glass windows, iron ornamentation, and quantities of small decorations. A profusion of flowers, tropical fruits, and gardens overflowing with dense vegetation inspired generations of Cuban painters and now serve as the aesthetic and nostalgic foundation for Carlos Luna and his imagination. Through a disciplined daily routine of creativity, all his work is informed by a sense of order that matches the technical and conceptual diligence he has practiced since the very first drawings. To understand the work of Carlos Luna is to appreciate the happiness he sees in life, especially among his friends and family and all they signify. It is a beautiful story captured in a personal and poignant dedication to art.