By Eashan Reddy Kotha
A couple of butterflies steal in and out of the frame. People leisurely walking, doing the same. An ancient Mayan tune cushions the bubbling conversations dancing through the air. Excited chattering, picture-taking, reconnecting and dainty consumption of churros, chips and guacamole. What does this picture show? A mesh of people young and old, each equally lively and enthralled by the works of Chicano artist Gilbert “Magu” Lujan.
“Aztlan to Magulandia: The Journey of Chicano Artist Gilbert ‘Magu’ Lujan” is an exhibit showcasing the sketches, paintings, sculptures and drawings of the titular Lujan. The exhibit opened on Oct 7 and will continue to be displayed until Dec 16. Gilbert Lujan was a significant presence in the Chicano art movement for his founding of the collective Los Four — a group consisting of fellow Chicano artists Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz, Robert de la Rocha and Judithe Hernández. All five of these artists were critical to the legitimization and recognition of Chicano artwork in the mainstream art world. Just as the collective was immensely successful, so was each artist in their own solo careers. The exhibit at UCI displays Magu’s contribution to art as an individual artist and it becomes clear after spending some time there that this was a man’s pure passion and visions laid out to the public for admiration.
If one thing is to be made clear of Magu’s style, it is that the vivid, and surreal depictions of a fantasy world are rooted in real passions and expressions of the human condition. The works aggregate contemporary visuals with other unusual ones. Anthropomorphic dogs driving tricked out cars, rabbits in convertibles are just a few of the striking visuals at the exhibit. However, Magu’s presented works have some recurring threads present throughout. The dogs are frequently seen —anthropomorphic confabulations going about their lives in a mystical world — as well as oddly structured cars. Lujan was immensely interested in cars, which showed in his various sketches and paintings. This world Lujan drops us in is none other than Magulandia.
Gilbert Lujan was also interested in reviving the Chicano history through his work. One of the worlds he creates is based on Aztlan, which was at one time the supposed Aztec residence and became symbol to the Chicano movement in the 1970s and 80s. This vision stands out for its attention not to the pastoral, idyllic fields or farms but to a more contemporary, urbanized world. Magulandia, on the other hand, is the world Lujan created in his studio. It initially was his studio. A fantasy world of sorts, Magulandia contains various utopias, physical depictions of real places, and a theoretical perspective on Chicano perspectives. It’s a presentation of his cultural identity, which now resonates with many Chicanos living in America today. In Magu’s work is the presence of a complex notion of aesthetic and identity.
Many of the works in the exhibit stand out for the explosive use of color paired with the aforementioned jarring visuals. What struck me the most was how intricately layered some of Lujan’s pieces were. His sketches of automobiles effused his childlike wonder and creativity. While some were clearly not full-fledged or commissioned works of art, the same spark could be projected from it.
I spoke with others at the exhibit and received an education of Chicano history that I couldn’t have gotten from my major specific classes. I got insight into the cultural identity of a group of people and how this singular figure made a name for himself through his artistic expression and teachings. Lujan passed away at the age of 70 in 2011 from cancer and is survived by his son Naiche Lujan. Despite never meeting the artist, I felt like I understood him.
I will remember my visit for years to come for it’s enlightening experience. Magulandia is the representation of another world, as Naiche Lujan puts it in a poem dedicated to his late father, “where visions of a reconciled past and a hopeful future culminate in this very moment.”