Carlos Luna is the kind of artist who gets approval by not needing it in the first place. He speaks frankly, with the same boldness and assertiveness of his lines. But it is what lies beneath them that drives Deep Line Drawings, an exhibit of about 60 recent works on view through Dec. 31 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
They are not harmonious, quiet landscapes one contemplates while holding a glass of wine. Refined doesn’t come to mind either. But they are undoubtedly the product of a highly skilled set of hands and a well-employed mind that, despite always being hard at work, retains its childhood vigor. Conceived in a highly inventive style that borrows from many influences including cubism, Afro-Cuban and indigenous, his distinctive figures narrate the less distinctive and relatable experience we all share from the minute we are born: life.
His characters, among which are roosters, horses and campesinos (farmers), have fun giving us their take. A horse sticks out his tongue even while being watched by an army of vigilant eyes. In a spot nobody ever notices, even there, Luna leaves a fun, simple mark packed with meaning. His signature closes with a drawing of a small moon (luna translates in Spanish as moon) followed by three small horizontal lines. The moon is his wife, Claudia, followed by their three children, Camila, Carlos and Cristobal. Luna refers to his wife as Mama Luna (Mother Moon) and explains his process involves the whole family, a dynamic he likens to “giving birth.”
The 48-year-old Cuban artist recently set aside time, from the precious daylight hours during he prefers to work, to speak with ArtsPaper about his process and why he rejects the idea of a muse. He is not one to rest on his laurels. He is proud and poetic and when he explains he could have found other vessels, such as literature, to express himself, one finds it a very plausible possibility for which it is clearly not too late, in his case. The Miami resident turns soft when talking about his family, especially as he explains that it has been a long time since he last saw his parents because they live in Cuba, where he is still not welcome.
He is not unique in jumping, as other artists, to defend his intentions and message against what he perceives to be wrong conclusions. During the hourlong interview, he sets the record straight more than once and in more than one way.
Why the title Deep Line Drawings?
My work has always been identified for drawings that are well-defined. I wanted to talk about what’s beneath the apparent image one sees. My line is deep. My line is incisive. I’m inviting the spectator to see what’s beneath, what’s under the skin of my work with regards to the line and the variety of technical resources I employ to express.
Most of the works on view are new, meaning they were created specifically for the museum and for this exhibit. Did it influence you in any way knowing the public that would be viewing them is predominantly Anglo-Saxon?
I was proudly born in Cuba, raised and developed in Mexico. I consider myself an individual who talks a universal language for every citizen of planet Earth. I leave the language open so that everyone can relate to the works, from the content to the colors to the forms. I respect the public but at the same time, I’m not interested in a work that is partial to any specific population. My public is everyone on Earth.
That sounds great. I mean, not all artists can escape that or are brave enough.
I appreciate that but it is a choice I made a long time ago. My work process is introverted and one during which I’m constantly piercing the soul. My technical processes are slow and I’m constantly perfecting them. It’s a process through which I am re-thinking who I am, how I see the world. I am not preoccupied with trends or movements, but with my own persona. I am concerned with my humanity.
The works I saw are busy, intense, and yet they almost come across as caricatures. One may not take them seriously initially, but they trick you. They almost scream at times. Let’s just say they are not the type of passive landscape one turns to for relaxing purposes. How much of your life and childhood is in them?
A man without a past is a man without future. The past is in the past but I constantly turn to it to learn, while walking forward. Inevitably, there is a radial point. I was born in the countryside and was raised by two extraordinary women, my grandmothers. They shaped much of who I am today. I paint animals because they were all around me growing up. The things I paint are rooted in my daily routine as a child.
When I say I speak from a more universal language is because I don’t pretend to yell that I am Cuban. I am already that. That’s already there. People can either see it or not. The Cuban people have lived 50-plus years of tragedy. I prefer to present my ideas, once fully developed, wrapped in a smile, through humor. If one perceives the work as caricature, grotesque, ironic, that’s up to each viewer.
A work of art that doesn’t make the spectator pause or think, it’s not a true work of art to me.
You studied at the San Alejandro Academy? How important was this early education as a foundation to your artistic career? Irrelevant? Significant?
I first received academic training through a friend of my grandmother, who first noticed my artistic ability. I studied at the School of Visual Arts in Pinar del Río, followed by the San Alejandro Academy. Later, I went to the National School of the Arts before moving on to the Instituto Superior de Arte (Visual Arts College).
There I received academic training to express myself in the visual arts. However, none of that makes you an artist. All study is significant, but doesn’t define whether one will have a career. It’s a personal, individual decision. In every person, there are innate abilities. To the extent that we are aware of them, we decide to pursue them all the way or not.
Life has been my best school, daily life. My teachers — alive and dead — my wife, my kids, my parents, my grandparents. My academic training in Cuba was important, but it was just a part of it. All study is important, it teaches discipline, but one has to have certain definitions already in place.
There was definitely something innate in you before setting foot in school.
I found in the visual arts the most enjoyable way to express myself. I could have expressed it in other ways: acting, music, literature, math, medicine. What was innate in me was the desire to express who I am, how I see the world. When I wake up in the mornings, all I want to do is head to my studio and invent something. I want to transform something ordinary into something sublime.
Did you ever doubt your decision to embark on this journey, this path?
Many times. You wonder what others think, what the teacher thinks, the critics. I have doubted many times if what I am doing is what I have to do. It’s part of our human condition.
Is there a ritual involved in your creative process? A favorite song you like to play? A time of day you prefer?
For many reasons, I like to work while there is daylight and to be synchronized with my family and friends. That, too, was an early decision. I couldn’t work during the early morning hours, as quiet and pleasant as they may be. I like to run on the same schedule as other people. I do listen to music 24 hours. I engage in dialogues because I’m constantly creating with my wife and my kids. My usual pace is: Action! Action! Action!
What kind of music do you like?
I listen to Cuban music, Mexican music, popular music, jazz; music that tells me something. Curiously, my work begins in the verbal context, not imagery. It’s those things I hear, a conversation at a restaurant, a song, a book, a phrase. It triggers an obsessive process to capture that image, to reveal what’s in that phrase to me. My untitled works are simply the accumulation of things I want to say.
Would it be fair to say that your muse is the outside world? You have only to step out to be inspired by a random phrase.
I want to be clear. To me, muse doesn’t exist. If it exists, it will have to find me here working. I don’t believe in evasive mental states and waiting for a spark. I respect if it is others’ method, but that is not my case.
I believe in the discipline of my daily life, my insistence and persistence for investigating aesthetic, emotional, spiritual concerns. While working on them, things emerge and it is up to me to decide what to do with them. To me, the muse is an excuse for not working and having someone else support you. I disagree with the concept. Remember, I come from Cuba. I didn’t even want my parents to support me then. Can you imagine me sitting down now and waiting for a miracle?
You mentioned this earlier, but how do you prefer to be identified? As a Cuban, an artist, or simply a human being?
I’ve never been interested in defining that. I like challenges. My grandmothers taught me to be a curious individual. Branding myself has never interested me. Let me put it to you another way. The mockingbird is known for imitating the songs of other birds. His own song comes from his ability of combining all those other songs. I can often relate to that idea. I think my work somewhat resembles the song of the mockingbird. Its sophistication of owning the other songs, making them his own, is a new quality.
Deep Line Drawings by Carlos Luna is on view through Dec. 31 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $12. Phone 561-392-2500 or visit www.bocamuseum.org.