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Influential Mexican American artist, 'Magú,' dies at 70

Gilbert 'Magú' Luján -- a painter, muralist and sculptor whose whimsical, slyly humorous art works, frequently evoking a rollicking, mythical view of Mexican American life, graced museum walls, the Hollywood and Vine subway station and other public places -- died July 24, according to a Facebook posting by his family. He was 70.

The Pomona resident had been battling cancer for several years, according to a number of friends and colleagues who confirmed that he died.

A pioneer of the Chicano art movement that took root in the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and '70s, Magú, as he was universally known, was among the first U.S. artists of Mexican descent to establish an international career.

He also was an enthusiastic facilitator of gatherings and exhibitions of Chicano artists and art collectives, most prominently the Chicano collective known as Los Four, and a catalytic figure in bringing their work to the wider art-viewing public, as well as to art scholars and critics.

"One only has to examine the barrio to see that the elements to choose from are as infinite as any culture allows," Magú once remarked.

In an interview last Monday, Chon Noriega, director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, described Magú as a "change agent" who drew inspiration not only from his deep knowledge of art history but from the various communities where he made his home in greater Los Ángeles and the Fresno area.

Magú was also instrumental, Noriega said, in expanding the framework of Chicano art beyond mainly political concerns to aesthetic ones as well.

"He really defined a very unique role," Noriega said. "Rather than seeing the art as merely a kind of instrument for social change," Magú insisted that art "had to have integrity in order to have that impact."

"Magú is an icon in the Chicano art movement and is well know throughout the art world. His loss will impact many lives," said Grace Solís, who met Luján years ago when she was the Executive Director of Arte Américas in Fresno.

Solís said she would frequently called Luján "for assistance, advice or to just vent. He was there for me and we continued to communicate via e-mail and facebook after I left Arte Américas. I will miss his laugh and his kind words," she said.

For Arturo Amaro, a retired professor at Fresno City College, Luján was a pioneer and trailblazer in introducing Chicano art to the Fresno area.

"He made a great contribution to not only Chicano art but art overall. And part of it is because where as a lot of high brow people think of art as an expensive gallery -- where you have to pay thousands of dollars -- he believed it should be more community based, available to everyone. Art was a community thing and he worked with students and the community very well," said Amaro, who met Magú in the 1970s, when they both worked at Fresno City College.

"He taught for several years at FCC. One of the reasons why he resigned and went back to southern California was because he felt the Fresno area did not support the arts like what he was accustomed to in Southern California. It was very frustrating for him. He saw a lot of road blocks. People did not want to foster art or like art and he became frustrated," Amaro said.

Drawing on indigenous Mesoamerican art and iconography, as well as the Chicano popular culture that surrounded him since his East L.A. youth, Magú populated his canvases and murals with Aztec-accessorized lowriders, plumed gods zipping by on serpentine skateboards, candy-striped pre-Columbian pyramids, humanlike animals and other flamboyantly colorful anthropomorphic creatures.

"He was part of a movement based on economic, political and social changes and in his art you see a lot of different cultural, historical, political dimensions all woven together and in that sense it was very unique," Amaro said.

Vicent Méndez, a Chicano art professor for 23 years, met Luján in 1979. Méndez currenlty teaches the class Magú taught at FCC in the late 70s.

"His artwork has humor in it and that is his legacy; the color movement and the vibrancy of his work. He was very prolific as an artist and his legacy would also be that he paved the way for Chicano art to enter into the museums because in the past, that type of artwork didn't enter the museums so it wasn't accepted readily by museums or galleries. I don't want to say it was controversial, but it sort of was," Méndez said. "People like him pushed that envelope and it's important to remember that about him."

As a founding member of Los Four, which also included artists Carlos Almaraz, Beto de la Rocha and Frank Romero, Magú participated in a seminal four-man show at UC Irvine and subsequently in an expanded version of the show at the Los Ángeles County Museum of Art in the early 1970s. Eventually, other artists, notably Judithe Hernández, joined the group and exhibited their work under the Los Four moniker.

Born Oct. 16, 1940, in French Camp, near Stockton, Magú moved as a child with his family to East Los Ángeles. He acquired his nickname, he later told interviewers, when friends noticed him squinting at artworks while inspecting them, like the nearsighted cartoon character Mr. Magoo.

After serving in the military, he attended Cal State Long Beach and earned a degree in ceramic sculpture in 1969.

As a student, Magú began organizing get-togethers of artists and other cultural and social activists that eventually evolved into regular encounters that he called Mental Menudos.

"He would gather people together to talk about social issues, but also to keep people motivated and highly optimistic and to keep doing their work despite the lack of support," recalled L.A. visual and performance artist Harry Gamboa Jr., a member of another trailblazing Chicano collective, ASCO.

Between 1976 and 1980, Magú taught at the La Raza Studies Department at Fresno City College, where he also served as department chairman. Later he taught art at Cal Poly Pomona, while maintaining his personal studio, Magulandia, in downtown Pomona.

In addition to LACMA, the artist's work has been exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Brooklyn Museum, and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

According to magulandia.com, the dA Center for the Arts will host a benefit, 'Cruisin' Magulandia,' next month in Pomona to promote the artist's legacy.

Vida en el Valle's reporter Cynthia Moreno also contributed to this report.

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