As intensely as I admire "Pablo Picasso Ceramics/Carlos Luna Paintings," the splashy new exhibition at the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale, I can't help but wonder whether a lot of people will exit puzzled. It's not so much that Luna is "difficult" — he can be — but rather a matter of how he's difficult. Simply put, I think it's entirely possible for someone to take in the whole show and leave still wondering what the art of Carlos Luna is all about.
Let's set aside for the moment the matter of whether and how well Luna's work fits with that of Pablo Picasso, who is represented here by 50 ceramics from the museum's permanent collection. Who is this Luna fellow, and why is he being given the star treatment? (He's the museum's current artist in residence.)
Fortunately, there are clues scattered throughout the exhibition in the form of wall text panels that try to situate Luna and his work in a context that makes them easier to grasp. Read these panels carefully, because without them, many of Luna's secrets may remain locked.
Luna isn't challenging in the same way that, say, abstract expressionism or even cubism is challenging. The raw materials with which he works are still easily apprehensible. No, the potentially tricky part is the artist's vocabulary, which, while it includes readily identifiable components, is also highly idiosyncratic and is often used in ways that demand a little extra work on our part.
Some of the vocabulary is familiar from other contexts. Bulls and roosters — and Luna is especially fond of the latter — are invariably used as emblems of masculinity, as they are throughout Latin American art. (Luna was born in Cuba in 1969 and lived in Mexico for a decade before settling in Miami about six years ago.) He sometimes pushes the personification of cocks even further with men who wear rooster masks, and it's worth noting that there's often a deadpan sense of humor involved. Sexuality, needless to say, is never far from Luna's mind.
It also helps to know that the alligators that turn up occasionally can be seen as representative of the island of Cuba, which their basic shape somewhat resembles. One large painting, Obe — Yono (2008), features a man consumed by a gator in the manner of the biblical story of Jonah and the whale.
Another recurring figure is that of the mustached guajiro, or peasant man, who appears in painting after painting, usually wearing a hat and smoking a cigar, sometimes drinking a cup of coffee. Although the character is essentially Luna's Everyman, the artist has said in interviews that he considers himself a guajiro, which puts an autobiographical spin on many an image.
Objects too make repeat appearances. Sewing machines, not surprisingly, stand for feminine strength, as in the one enshrined in Los años duros de mi madre/My Mother's Lean Years (2008). Coffee pots of various shapes and sizes and telephones are also among the items Luna uses as connective tissue. Airplanes, sometimes startlingly phallic in form, speak volumes about the exile experience.
More disturbing for some people may be Luna's seeming obsession with such weaponry as knives and guns. In the big gouache and charcoal Bum Bum de pingas el caso/Bang Bang, Holy S...! (2005), a gigantic pistol dominates the image, blasting a seated man's head off in morphing stages until it becomes a skull. And in Luna's grimly witty take on the battle of the sexes, Latin Lovers (2008), the title characters appear to dance, although he brandishes a gun behind his back while she wields a knife behind hers. Luna has said that in these and other works, he is not so much endorsing violence as acknowledging its inescapable dominance in the cultures that have influenced him, from Cuban to Mexican to American.
But if you really want to plumb the depths of Carlos Luna's work, be sure to get a good fix on that mysterious half-moon face with eyes and nose that is a ubiquitous presence in painting after painting (luna is moon in Spanish). By my count, all but five or six of the artist's 53 works in the exhibition include this element, in many cases so expertly woven into the texture of the image that you have to look hard to find it.
This "character," besides being an apparent emblem of the artist himself, is Elegguá, an orisha (spirit or deity) commonly found in Afro-Cuban religious traditions as a mediator between humanity and nature. Luna's use of it borders on pantheism — a way of locating the spiritual as it manifests itself in all things animate and inanimate. For Luna, Elegguá is also an all-seeing witness whose mere presence validates that which is seen. The recurring eyes in many pieces reinforce this impression.
Elegguá presides over the congregation of all Luna's motifs that is El Gran Mambo/The Great Mambo (2006), a massive, six-panel painting that is Luna's masterpiece to date. It's as if the artist decided to pour everything he knows and feels into one painting. To come upon this truly grand work, near the end of the exhibition, is to stand in awe of Luna's talent in terms of technique and content.
Indeed, Luna's talent is such that, although he doesn't exactly eclipse Picasso, he holds his own alongside the master. Luna himself selected the 50 Picasso ceramics that make up the other half of this exhibition (culled from the museum's 63-piece collection, donated by South Florida hotelier Bernie Bercuson in the early 1990s). It's wonderful to see so many of these sensuous ceramics on display again — they're normally out on loan to other institutions — but to Luna's great credit, they come across as a sidebar to his invigorating main show.