Not many men are given to be notable cultural pioneers as well as prolific and endlessly inventive artists in their own right. Count this one man, Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, among them. He is first and foremost an artist. Visit his studio, and you’ll be witness to the spectacle of a teeming, vibrant output of art works in a stunning variety of media—from assemblages of sticks and twigs to whimsical ceramic sculptural objects and a plethora of prints and canvases. This is the heart of Magulandia.
What’s remarkable about this work is the energy with which it gathers a rich texture of cultural history and intensely personal symbol in its extravagantly colorful embrace. It’s a feast for the eye—but especially also for the mind. Magu’s wealth of imagery merges the traditions of art brut and folk art, Meso-American mythology and ritual, the Chicano culture of low-riders, murals and graffiti, the religious imagery of New World Catholicism and the political and sociological imperatives of socialism—along with the savvy self-awareness of contemporary American art since World War II. And if that’s a mouthful, so be it. Such is the range of Magu’s vision and creative reach.
All this, for the artist, is living tradition, genetic information as vital and fluid as the bloodstream. So let it be clear that this merger is embodied first and foremost in the actuality of each discreet object of Magu’s creation, whose seductive, often humorous, sometimes bawdy, always joyful allure is just the doorway into a complex of deeply human meanings and emotions. As with all good artworks, though, once we have exhausted those meanings we always return to that point where we look at them and just say, Yes.
The pioneering social work for which Magu is widely known proceeds from his creative energy, the art work. His efforts as an emerging artist and student in the master’s program at the University of California, Irvine in 1960s and the early 1970s changed the course of art history. Famously, at that time, he brought together Los Four—along with himself, the artists Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero and Beto de la Rocha—who breached the sober, Euro-centric walls of academia and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with the exuberant artistic energy that had been gathering on the streets—and particularly the walls—of East Los Angeles. A fervent, dedicated theorist and organizer, Magu was soon recognized as the fulcrum for burgeoning chicanismo, tirelessly promoting an alternative view to the dominant Western aesthetic and re-invigorating it with both a renewed social conscience and Latin passion.
Meet Magu in person and you’ll find him endlessly garrulous, spirited in his arguments, as eager to share his own ideas as he is to hear those of others. A born educator, he has the gift of inspiring those with whom he comes in contact. It is this quality, surely, that has made of him a leader in his own community of artists—a mantle that he nonetheless wears with modesty and circumspection.
In the constellation of our contemporary culture, Gilbert “Magu” Lujan occupies a unique and vitally important place.
Peter Clothier is the author of Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce. You can find him daily at his blog, The Buddha Diaries.”
“Magulandia: A human experience”
Evan A. Senn
edited by Joanna Roche
In 1974, the art world met Gilbert “Magu” Lujan in a way that no one can forget. The LACMA exhibition of Los Four that year would not be the first time Magu had changed—and challenged—our collective understanding of art and culture in Southern California and it most certainly wouldn’t be the last. Bridging the gap between different cultures in the same community and igniting a worldwide cultural awakening, Magu’s endeavors in artistic expression and his work with Los Four helped define what Chicano art was then and is today. Throughout his long career, Magu has been committed to learning the tools and terms of the artist’s trade, which he has wielded in a range of art venues, from the streets to the Smithsonian, to demonstrate the power of Chicano art.
Magu’s lifelong pursuit of empowering Chicano art—and artists—has been fueled by his need to explore both personal and cultural roots. Beginning as a group of “outsider” artists, Los Four was the manifestation of what Magu, the group’s founder, imagined: four directions, four people, four chances. The 1974 LACMA exhibition of Chicano art of Los Four, Los Four: Almaraz, de la Rocha, Lujan, Romero brought cultural awareness, pride, education and appreciation for cultural differences and similarities in Southern California art and culture. With all the models of success in art as Caucasian males, Los Four took the reigns of power and authority in this previously-marginalized art form. They were determined to be seen.
With intensity and passion, Magu was able to engage his academic background in art and art history (which was heavily Eurocentric at the time of his undergraduate and graduate studies) in conjunction with his proud, cultural heritage. This cross-pollination of western art history with vital, indigenous influences from Chicano culture, enabled Magu to create contemporary artwork that invoked familiar, cultural roots. Throughout his career, as continued to promote visual exploration of Chicano culture as a means to gain appreciation for its aesthetic and cultural quality. Magu has incorporated Low-rider culture and Graffiti into his art. His amazing Low-riders and drawings/paintings are examples of once-marginalized art forms that Magu has helped to bring to the attention of a diverse public from a wide range of communities. The heart of his labor, however, begins and ends with community.
Magu’s efforts can also be seen outside of making art works. As a professor, a practicing artist, and a community leader, art education and engagement—especially via his “Mental Menudo” talk forums, has been a preoccupation of his for over 35 years. These forums were designed to advance, promote, network and discuss the notion of a Chicano cultural aesthetic. The topics of Magu’s Mental Menudos, where he serves as facilitator and sometimes, referee, are wide and varied. Their over-arching goal is to empower participants to think broadly and deeply about some of the many aspects of art, artists and contemporary culture. His goal in these forums is always to get people talking, thinking and collaborating.
Magu’s contribution to Southern California’s art “landscape” is so far-reaching that it is almost indistinguishable from our art scene as a whole: his stylistic choices, color palette and the exuberant, raw energy of his art ripple through much of Southern California culture today. Magu stated, “Art is not defined by some committee, it is a human experience.” It is this human experience that fuels all of our lives and our artistic expressions. This is a lesson we can learn again and again, from Magu and from ourselves.