Tuesday, July 18, 2017

New book on Magu's art

Review: Hal Glicksman and Cortez Constance, eds., Aztlán to Magulandia: The Journey of Chicano Artist Gilbert 'Magu' Luján. Irvine CA: University Art Galleries/ DelMonico Books. 2017. ISBN: 9783791356884

Michael Sedano


The University of California Irvine just solved your holiday gift-giving challenge five months early. No matter who--old, young, literate, book-phobic—everyone will appreciate having a copy of this lavishly produced volume suitable for the coffee table. The book, edited by Hal Glicksman and Cortez Constance, Aztlán to Magulandia: The Journey of Chicano Artist Gilbert 'Magu' Luján, includes important essays by Karen Davalos and Maxine Borowsky Junge. Virginia Arce, Mardi Luján, and Naiche Luján provided chronology support.

The essays are the icing on the cake, which is 165 plates in rich color and detail. The art in the book will hang in the exhibition. What a show, all these Magu gathered in one place at the same time, perhaps for the only time in our lifetimes. Whether or not you attend the show, once the exhibition closes in early December, only the catalog remains to document the experience. Beside, you will want to read the catalog for the essays, not just the pictures.

The art component of the book sets forth a synoptic collection from Magu’s career. There’s an historic pleasure seeing the placa for the UCI “Los Four” show. A pair of “Los Four” exhibitions introduced Chicano art to the world in 1973 and1974. In many ways, Magu by organizing the Los Four collective, started Chicano art. It’s a similar phenomenon to the birth of Chicano Literature in the 1969 edition of El Espejo: The Mirror. He’d underplay it a little, but Magu would agree. This book documents one of the nation’s most important artists and art movements and is essential to any library or under that holiday tree. By the way, the cover’s a rich gold, like Hanukkah gelt.

Magu is a friend of mine who crossed to the Other Side a few years ago. Many are the conversations we shared about his career, the Los 4 collective, the nature of Chicanidad in art and literature. Never arrived at a solid conclusion but that wasn’t / isn’t the point of a friendly chat or a Mental Menudo. For sure, my friend is happy seeing this volume and the exhibition, overjoyed to see his UCI homecoming. Aztlán to Magulandia: The Journey of Chicano Artist Gilbert 'Magu' Luján offers a fit tribute to a humble giant of United States art. Did I mention you really need to own a copy?

When he got word of the Irvine exhibition, Magu’s excitement sent him into a frenzy of design and construction. He got busy on a monumental carrito to hang on the wall. In rest periods from the sculpture he assembled and sorted canvases and sculptures from the archive that filled every room of his rented house. But Magu was already sick, and energy so depleted a resource that even his powerful creative spirit force couldn’t produce the power to sustain his ideas. The UCI retrospective would ever be a distant dream.

Now, Hal Glicksman and Rhea Anastas have done the curatorial work and assembled a magnificent exhibition that showcases Gilbert Luján’s brilliance. I find Glicksman’s introduction especially important for comprehending Magu’s emergence as a distinctive voice in U.S. modern art, wearing the label “Chicano artist”. Glicksman organized an early graffiti show in Claremont, where he met Magu. They collaborated a few years later when Magu was doing the MFA program at UCI where Glicksman was director of the galleries. The first “Los Four” show hung with Glicksman’s permission. He remembers the time with pride, despite the scholar’s distance.

Magu liked to rant on about European art, and posing a conundrum, if Chicanos can do European art—“we’ve been doing European art all our lives!” he used to exclaim—Anglos could do Chicano art; except no, they couldn’t. The artist’s fervor at his analysis has its origins all the way to grad school in the 1970s. Glicksman remembers the art firebrand Magu discarding fealty to New York minimalism and European influences, seeking materials in Mexican indigenous design and mixing irony and Chicanidad to give Chicano art a place next to other traditions.

Point of view, that’s what gives Magu’s work a special place in raza aesthetics. Magu hung a large canvas over the fireplace, a map of the Americas. Except the perspective was looking north from South America, playing with expectation, seeing the world upside down before realizing that’s the point, a description and a mindset. I wonder what happened to that painting? It’s not in the catalog but to me it was an elegant overstatement of another of Magu’s favored subjects, “all art is political.”

The dog, among Magu’s most recognizable motifs, and other anthropomorphized characters, populate a concept called Magulandia, the critic Glicksman explains. They’re zany and humorous, non-threatening, inclusive. Adding pyramids, indigenous costume, and indio faces to the canvas acknowledges the authentic history infusing Magulandia while disposing of fantasy histories and hyphenated identity complexes.

I’ve probably brutalized Glickman’s more nuanced analysis of Magu’s work. The curator—who calls Magu by his surname in the essay—takes a careful scholar’s approach, laying out a chronology and context of the young Gilbert Luján—“just Magu” he would tell people who called him “Gilbert.” For gente who know Magú but don’t know all these details of his intellectual development, Glickman’s essay is especially interesting. For gente who want to know more about Chicana and Chicano arte, Glickman’s introduction and the essays by Karen Mary Davalos and Maxine Borowsky Junge are invaluable.

The Davalos essay emerges from the art historian’s project a few years ago documenting a variety of leading Chicana and Chicano artists. We had a Mental Menudo at Casa Sedano in 2007, during the time Davalos was working on her Magu interview, adding personal interest for me and the handful of folks who attended. Borowsky Junge co-authored the recent biography of the magazine Con Safos. Magu was art editor for the historic arts and culture movimiento magazine.

You didn’t have to be a friend of Magu’s to appreciate all you’ll receive from Aztlán to Magulandia: The Journey of Chicano Artist Gilbert 'Magu' Luján. Magu, kind-hearted and unassuming as can be, is a towering figure in United States art. Too few know his work, others dismiss it without a thought. For the latter, leafing through the high-quality reproductions in this hefty oversize publication could make a difference: only the hardest hearts are immune to that grinning doggie smiling out at you in full color.

I do not subscribe to the shoulda-coulda-woulda school of criticism, pero sabes que? I sure wish Magu was around to see this exhibition. I know he’s happy as can be over there, munching an organic tortilla and firing up some celestially good stuff.

The exhibition at Irvine runs October 7 – December 16, 2017, with the hardcopy catalog due to be released in early September. See your local bookseller to get your orders in now.

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