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Gilbert “Magu” Luján (October 16, 1940 – July 24, 2011)

Family members announced that Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, a pioneer of chicanismo, the movement that established a unique aesthetic and brought Chicano art to national attention in the late 1960s and early 1970s, passed away Sunday, July 24th, 2011 after a battle with cancer at Methodist Hospital of Southern California in Arcadia, surrounded by his immediate family.

Magu was a prolific and endlessly inventive artist as well as a notable cultural pioneer. Visitors to his studio late in his career were witness to the spectacle of a teeming, vibrant output of work produced over many years, in a stunning variety of media—from assemblages of sticks and twigs to whimsical ceramic sculptural objects and a plethora of prints and canvases.

Remarkable about Magu’s artistic vision was the energy with which it integrated a rich texture of cultural history and intensely personal symbol in its extravagantly colorful embrace. His work was invariably a feast for the eye—but especially also for the mind. His wealth of imagery merged 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.

Taken together, this was a living tradition for the artist, genetic information as vital and fluid as the bloodstream. The merger was embodied in the actuality of each discreet object or painting whose seductive, often humorous, sometimes bawdy, always joyful allure was just the doorway into a complex of deeply human associations and emotions.

Born to parents of Mexican and indigenous descent in French Camp, California in 1940, Magu was brought up from an early age in East Los Angeles and attended El Monte High School. Stationed in the UK, he served for three years in the United States Air Force and returned to study ceramic art, first at East Los Angeles College and then California State University, Long Beach, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Ceramic Sculpture. He completed his MFA degree at the University of California, Irvine in 1973, where his efforts as a student and an emerging artist changed the course of art history. At UC Irvine, he brought together for the first time “Los Four” in a group exhibition that included, with himself, the artists Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero and Beto de la Rocha.

Harnessing the exuberant artistic energy that had been gathering on the walls of East Los Angeles in the form of the ubiquitous graffiti and dynamic wall paintings, along with the low-riders that prowled the streets, Los Four breached first the sober, Euro-centric walls of academia and, soon, the bastion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art itself. A fervent, dedicated theorist and organizer, Magu became the most vocal proponent of chicanismo, tirelessly promoting an alternative view to the still dominant Western tradition, and re-invigorating it with both a renewed social conscience and Latin passion.

Notable among Magu’s major public art works was the 1990 design of the Metro Red Line Station at Hollywood and Vine. Honoring that iconic movie industry location, he chose the theme “Hooray for Hollywood”, including a “Yellow Brick Road” that directed foot traffic from the plaza to the train platform, and installing wall tiles and sculptural benches in the shape of low-riders. The support pillars were converted into Southern California palm trees, klieg lights were suspended from the ceiling, a “night sky” composed of a myriad movie reels.

Magu also made a significant contribution as a teacher, in ways both formal and informal. From 1976 to 1980, he served on the faculty in the La Raza Studies Department at Fresno City College, ending up his term there as department chair. In Pomona, where he maintained his home and studio in his later years, he was active in community outreach in the Pomona Art Colony and taught art at the nearby Claremont Colleges. A loquacious promoter of the passionate discussion of aesthetics and politics, his famous soirees attracted artists and writers from throughout the Southland. He will be missed by many.

Magu is survived by his children, Naiche Starhawk, Risa Liviana, Otono Amarillo, Joasia and Michelle; by his grandchildren, Kiani Azul, Sol, Kevin, Vanessa and Natalie; and by his former wife and friend of 45 years, Mardi. He is survived also by his mother, Josefina, and his brothers Richard, Robert, Phillip, Ronnie and Mark.

For further information about the artist, and for information about the fundraising effort of family and friends to preserve Magu’s legacy, please go to Magulandia at The family will be announcing updates to memorial service information at this site.

~ Peter Clothier, The Buddha Diaries

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