Luna's vision is fueled by internal conflict, humor, and irony.
Luna's vision is fueled by internal conflict, humor, and irony.
Photo by Ignacio Barrios

Artist Carlos Luna Explores Cuban Identity With Humor and Contemplation

Artist Carlos Luna has had quite the journey to his inaugural solo exhibition at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum. After he was cast out from his native Cuba, Luna traveled first to Mexico in 1991 and almost a decade later to his now-permanent home in Miami. It's an odyssey that's been told a thousand times, an experience not unlike that of millions of exiled Cubans. But despite its ubiquity, Luna's story is deeply personal, and expressing it is an essential component of comprehending it.

"Green Machine: The Art of Carlos Luna" explores his past work and treats it as a precursor to the future. It showcases artworks filled with personal references, veiled with humor, and defined by unwavering resilience.

"Green Machine: The Art of Carlos Luna"

Through September 13 at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, 10975 SW 17th St., Miami; 305-348-2890; thefrost.fiu.edu. Open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

The exhibition, curated by Luna's longtime friend Dr. Bárbaro Martínez-Ruiz, features roughly 30 of the artist's works created over the past several years. Luna experiments with new materials and techniques yet adheres to his practice of producing self-referential, autobiographical works that are a colorful representation of memories collected across three countries.

Born in 1969 in rural Pinar del Río, Luna began painting at the age of 7 and went on to study at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. He was initiated into the Cuban art world in the 1980s as part of the so-called Art of the 80s, a dissident movement whose politically charged works have since become iconic. For this reason, Luna's work inevitably fell out of favor, and he relocated to Mexico. His work there was heavily influenced by that country's culture and symbolism.

For "Green Machine," curator Ruiz has drawn out the artist's reflection on personal experience while presenting the complexity and depth of his influences. Taking a look at any one of Luna's works, one can find the influences of Afro-Cuban tradition portrayed by Cuban artists such as Wifredo Lam and José Bedia, Pablo Picasso's cubism, and the cartoon-like figures of the pop movement's Keith Haring and Roy Lichtenstein.

"He really does see himself as part of a very long lineage of artists," Dr. Jordana Pomeroy, director of Frost Art Museum, says. "It's like a menu. He takes what he wants whenever it's going to make the most impactful statement." What's most interesting about Luna's technique is that he maintains his own style despite marrying disparate themes. From beneath layers and layers of allusions emerges Luna's vision, one that's fueled by internal conflict, humor, and irony.

His characteristic use of symbols is the recurring theme in "Green Machine," produced on such a scale to include hundreds of figures in a single canvas. The exhibition's most compelling work is El Gran Mambo (2006), a giant mural comprising six smaller pieces totaling 12 feet in height. The work produces a sort of "Where's Waldo?" effect for the trained eye: The viewer could be entertained for hours trying to spot Luna's persistent emblems, such as the recurring skeleton, a quasi-religious icon in Mexico, which for decades has appeared in Luna's work as a reflection of himself, illustrating the hollowness of the man when stripped of his native land and identity.

Mr. C.O. Jones
Mr. C.O. Jones
Artwork by Carlos Luna

Also embedded in nearly all of the works are cartoonish eyeballs, a comical reference to the ever-watchful Communist eye, of the feeling of being under surveillance. The eyeball figures transcend Luna's experience in Cuba and become a metaphor for his life as an artist — constantly being observed, judged, and labeled.

Luna's use of idioms and Cuban slang are inspired by medieval religious paintings. Those paintings always included a word or two to teach the often-illiterate viewer a word that represented a teaching of Christ. By using everyday Cuban jargon in his paintings, Luna puts himself on the same level as his fellow guajiros and injects humor into a reference to illiteracy and colloquial language of rural Pinar del Río. He also uses words to insist that the viewer read between the lines; his vibrant painting Mr. C.O. Jones (2012), with a clever play on words, depicts a man beheading a male Medusa.

The tiered meaning of the symbols in Luna's work is an illustration of how the artist views his life's journey. What was once a literal interpretation of his life in Cuba now becomes a statement regarding his career, a reality that is informed by his past and survives through his present-day works. It's the very essence the exhibition has sought to capture, the "machine" as the mechanism that perpetuates life's continuity. The artist leaves behind his rural past, only to confront it on a daily basis at work.

"Green Machine" is meant to function as a retrospective of Luna's work, an overview of the past with a nod to the future. Luna continues to experiment with a variety of new mediums and techniques that proves the artist is just as forward-thinking as he is introspective, all while showcasing a cross-pollination of influences from Cuba, Mexico, and Miami. Take, for example, Beauty (2015), a work that consists of 49 round plates fired by Talavera Ceramics, an extremely traditional pottery in Mexico. The figures on the plates are reminiscent of his earlier paintings, yet the method he uses to display them are unique to his body of work.

Luna also presents seven works that use traditional art forms in a revolutionary way. He partnered with Oakland-based Magnolia Editions, which has revived the centuries-old textile art form of tapestry by using computerized looms, capturing the minute details of an artist's design without any alterations from the weaver. It's a tedious process and an unusual medium, but it's innovative and especially striking considering the richness of Luna's color scheme and the context of this exhibition.

He also interacts with the space of the exhibit's rooms by creating etched wooden frames with cartoonish flourishes, such as in Black Bite (2013) and Aaaa (2015). Luna's approach expands the work outside the frame, which gives the austere museum a dynamism that it otherwise wouldn't possess. It also portrays his inclination toward creating works that are like graphic novels, telling the story of his journey in a lighthearted yet richly complex manner.

"The reason we all love cartoons is they speak to all of us, and it aligns with the way Luna positions himself — as a peasant, not as a member of the aristocratic society," Pomeroy says. "He speaks the language of the people, and that makes his work easier to understand."

There's something very drastic about being cut off from your homeland, and that's likely why this exhibition is particularly appropriate in a Miami museum setting. Miami, unlike so many other cities in the United States, is still growing into its own skin. It's an immigrant city where millions have been cut off — whether by necessity or by choice — from their ancestral roots. The title "Green Machine" is an allusion to El Monte, a sacred forest in the Afro-Cuban tradition that one must enter to find meaning. Luna draws from those connections and beckons the viewer to join him.

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