Aztlán to Magulandia: The Journey of Chicano Artist Gilbert “Magu” Luján
UCI, University Art Gallery
By Liz Goldner
October 7th to December 16th
Gilbert “Magu” Luján was a visionary, a dedicated artist, and an intellectual who helped define and promote Chicano art in the 1960s and 70s, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. He was born in 1940, the son of Mexican and indigenous parents, and grew up mostly in Los Angeles where he immersed himself in contemporary music and art, occasionally ditching high school to attend art exhibitions. After serving in the air force for three years, he studied art and ceramics at East Los Angeles College and Cal State, Long Beach, while exploring the nascent L.A. Chicano art movement.
In 1969, he wrote: “I believe there is a Chicano Art form and that it has been around for many years without formalization and recognition…Most Chicanos are aware of our current new breed renaissance which has flowered many investigations, probes and introspection in most areas of our life patterns…As we affirm broad-based awareness of our cultural linkage to Mexico and our Indian forefathers, it is clear to all that the Chicano culture is a real and identifiable body.” (From the catalog, “Gilbert ‘Magu’ Luján,” © 2017.)
At the University of California, Irvine, where Luján earned his M.F.A. in sculpture in 1973, he became a major force promoting Chicano culture. By then, this movement included not only artists, but also educators and social activists. And while in graduate school, he co-founded the artists collective, “Los Four,” which mounted Chicano exhibitions at UCI and then at LACMA in 1973.
“Aztlán to Magulandia” then is a homecoming for Luján as it was created over two years by several players associated with the UCI art department. Further, this exhibition’s works reflect the artist who went on a lifelong journey exploring art, history and mythology, particularly his Chicano heritage, and Aztlán, the mythic ancestral home of the indigenous Aztec people. (The simultaneous LACMA show, “Playing With Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz,” through December 3, is a retrospective of the artist who also co-founded “Los Four.”)
What then is Magulandia? This imaginary place, forming the background for many pieces in the show, grew from the artist’s visualizations, and is based on Mesoamerican iconography and architecture. Spanning centuries, it includes Aztec priests and lowrider cars in a single artwork, and is inhabited by people, animals, human/animal hybrids, cars, trees, and landscapes, the latter combining U.S. and Mexican locales. The artist’s primitively drawn figures and settings fill his artwork in this exhibition of nearly 200 sketches, drawings, paintings and sculptures. Luján’s understanding of history, mythology, and of classic and modern art, expressed in his work, along with testimonials from friends and colleagues, further reveal that he was a well-read intellectual. He was also outspoken, particularly about the importance of Chicano art.
His artistic trademark is his hybrid dog person—a dog face on a human body, evoking the Egyptian gods who often had animal heads. This smiling anthropomorphized creature (described in the catalog as a “metaphor for indigenous Mexican-Indian heritage”) peers out from or dominates many of his pieces. Another featured subject is the car, particularly lowriders, which the artist was enamored with. Not surprisingly, several sculptures feature human heads and torsos affixed to cars. One example is Having a Car Baby (2004).
Along with the artist’s Chicano based subject matter, joy, energy and extensive use of primary colors emanate from his works. With this outlook, Luján helped alter the formerly disparaging perception of “Chicano” into one that is cultural, socially progressive and inclusive. The process of transforming this perception became a lifelong quest that he manifested in his works.
The show’s signature piece, the lithograph El Fireboy y El Mingo (1988), depicts a smiling man with flaming hair with his arm around a big-eyed dog person. The yellow background is sprinkled with a variety of small charms of bells, peppers, chairs, and other ephemera. Two Prismacolor illustrations include Gender Consensus (2005), one of many depictions of lovers in the show, and La Ella Cruising (2004) of a woman driving a lowrider car with the roof seemingly in flames. The 28-inch wide serigraph Cruising Turtle Island (1986) is dominated by an exuberantly painted lowrider traveling through a wildly tropical, urban landscape, with a dog person in the lower right corner looking on.
Returning to Aztlán (1983), an historic serigraph, is an intricately detailed map of Latin America. It includes animals, ancient structures, foliage, and two indigenous men driving a lowrider car, and speaks to the Chicano artist’s preference for Latin traditions over Eurocentric aesthetic standards. Characteristically, Luján is quoted in the exhibition catalog: “Most people have a very stereotypic view…and even to call us Hispanics makes me understand that they’re not looking at me…That mold has never left the consciousness of English-speaking people, especially the Anglo…”
Aztlán to Magulandia: The Journey of Chicano Artist Gilbert “Magu” Luján, UCI, University Art Gallery, 712 Arts Plaza, Irvine, CA 92697, (949) 824-9854, www.uag.arts.uci.edu, October 7-December 16, 2017