Gilbert “Magú” Luján used to laugh when described as a Chicano art icon, but he is more than deserving of the title. His irreverent, playful work across a broad spectrum of media that included cardboard, metal, ceramic tile and organic material, among others, fused a distinct visual vocabulary with his perennial curiosity and a soft-spoken, often sweetly paternal bearing.
A founding member of “Los Four,” an early Chicano art collective that brought LA Chicano art to a wider audience with an exhibit at LACMA in 1974, he died of complications from prostate cancer on Sunday.
Born in the San Joaquin Valley, he grew up in East L.A. and was informed by the struggle for Mexican American civil rights. Alongside artists Frank Romero, Beto de la Rocha and Carlos Almaraz, as Los Four, he worked tirelessly to address the dearth of mainstream recognition for Chicano art as a valid school of American art.
I first saw his cartoon-like humanoid animals draped in various cross-cultural styles and trappings, from canine Pachuco swing dancers to Aztec skateboarders levitating above the inconographic L.A. freeways in a groundbreaking University of Texas Chicano Art History course taught by Dr. Ramon Favela. I later got a first hand look at some of his silkscreen print work in a gallery my older brother opened in Austin with a sociology professor Gilbert Cardenas, an East L.A. native and a serious collector of Chicano art.
Here in L.A., I marveled at the signature lowrider he contributed to the show “Arte y Estilo: the Lowriding Tradition” at the Petersen Automotive Museum in 2000. Years later, when I finally descended into the Metro Red Line station at Hollywood and Vine, which he designed, I was floored at the sight of so many vibrant images straight from Magulandia (his studio) rendered in three dimensions.
An educator, father and ringleader behind the occasional 'Mental Menudo' gatherings where artists and intellectuals and art lovers debated the meaning of Chicano art and all manner of related issues, he was highly regarded as a patient and humble spirit, the antithesis of an art diva.
“Magú and I got into it. We disagreed,” says Jaime Guerrero, a glass artist who attended some of the more recent incarnations of the discussion series. “But he was always humble and very giving. He respected and honored everyone's opinion. He never had a bad thing to say about anybody.”
I finally had an opportunity to speak with Magú in person two years ago at the first ever solo gallery exhibition by 79-year-old community elder, altar-maker and artist Ofelia Esparza. He was adamant about supporting someone who had given so much of her life to nurture others but had not been given the recognition she was due. At the time, we made plans to sit down for a definitive interview and then followed up with a few phone calls. Much to my present dismay, I never made the trek to Pomona, where he lived and worked.
I saw him briefly just over a month ago in a wheel chair at an Elysian Park party and blessing ceremony for little Mountain Montoya, whose father, Richard Montoya — a playwright and co-founder of the comedy troupe Culture Clash — was and remains a huge “Magú” disciple. Late Sunday night, Montoya had this to say on his FB page, “Like a candle — he flickers all over LA — and as if the entire Eastside knows… everything is closed early tonight. Cantinas, corners and the cops are quiet — out of respect for Magú, I prefer to think.”