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Pioneer LA Chicano artist Gilbert 'Magu' Lujan dies at 70

Gilbert "Magú" Luján, prolific Chicano artist, has died at 70 years old.
Harry Gamboa Jr.
Gilbert "Magú" Luján, prolific Chicano artist, has died at 70 years old.

Los Angeles-based visual artist Gilbert “Magu” Lujan died on Sunday. He was 70 years old. In a career that spanned five decades, Lujan worked to open established galleries to emerging Chicano artists, and to spark discussions about the direction of the art.

A typical Gilbert Lujan painting includes bright, chubby cars with lowrider paint jobs driven by Aztec warriors – or, sometimes, by dogs behind dark shades. The style’s on view every day in the art he created for the Hollywood and Vine Metro Red Line station.

It may look pretty, he told recently, but politics inform its aesthetic.

"Everything I do is about humans," says Lujan, "so I make the car a human being, but for me making them these cartoon characters is a subterfuge for something else. This way I could deal with racism in a different way, to counter a lot of these anti-Mexican feelings by hiding behind whimsy, color, innocence, folky."

Lujan was born in the San Joaquin Valley. He lived in Guadalajara with his mother’s family for a while, and grew up in East L.A. During the late 1960s activism of the United Farm Workers and civil rights protests in L.A. he proudly claimed the identity of a politicized Mexican-American, a Chicano.

In 1974 he took that barrio aesthetic to the hallowed and very un-Chicano-friendly galleries of the L.A. County Museum of Art. Lujan, recently out of UC Irvine with an art degree, and three fellow artists were the first Chicanos to exhibit at LACMA.

For that era, the exhibit of Los Four, as they called themselves, was monumental, says independent curator Pilar Tompkins-Rivas. "Magu’s approach was one of art school experience and understanding," says Tompkins-Rivas, "but also bringing in the imagery and icons and approach to art that reflected his background.

Tompkins-Rivas is working on an exhibit of Lujan’s work that’ll be part of the comprehensive October-to-April series of Southland art shows called "Pacific Standard Time." UCLA’s Chon Noriega announced that the coordinated exhibits would include Lujan works two days before Gilbert Lujan’s death.

"The university art gallery at UC Irvine will provide a closer look at Gilbert 'Magu' Lujan," said Noriega, "who helped define Chicano art as a founder of Los Four and who organized the first exhibition of Chicano artists at a major art museum at LACMA, in 1974."

A second exhibit salutes Lujan’s pugnacious persistence to get people talking about art. In the audience, fellow Chicano artist Wayne Healy remembered those efforts.

"He does things like his famous mental menudos," said Healy, "and it’s just like this impromptu roundtable of questions about what is Chicano art."

"Mental Menudo" was Lujan’s reference to the hearty, spicy Mexican stew with a hodgepodge of ingredients. Gallery owner Kathy Gallegos attended enough of those events to know they weren’t all polite salon discussions about art.

"And I think a couple of people were kicked out and weren’t allowed to come back to the mental menudos because he tried to say, ‘You have to be respectful here, and we have to respect each other’s opinions,’" says Gallegos. "That’s easy to say, but when you start talking about what is Chicano art and someone doesn’t agree with you, it can get heated."

Gallegos says some discussions got heated when Lujan didn’t acknowledge that some of his viewpoints tended to dismiss the women in the room. She and others remember Gilbert Lujan as a prolific artist and even tempered man. In recent years, she adds, Lujan came around and expanded his narrow definition of Chicano art to include work by Central American artists in the United States.

Doctors diagnosed Gilbert Lujan with prostate cancer three years ago. He was carrying out his usual schedule until earlier this year, says his son, Otoño Lujan, and in his final months his three adult children spent more time with him.

"We were fortunate over the last several months to get a lot closer to him," says Otoño Lujan. "That was one of the silver linings of that, is that all our lives slowed down to be able to create a stronger relationship and really connected deeper."

The younger Lujan says plans for a public memorial are in the works. A benefit to pay for medical costs, organized before Gilbert Lujan’s death, will go forward at the da Center in Pomona next month.