‘Pomona A to Z’: M is for Magu

[To pay tribute to Pomona’s Arts Colony, M was for Magu, the city’s most lauded artist. A couple of years back, he moved to Ontario for cheaper rent, I’m told, but he’s still an important figure in Arts Colony lore. This column was originally published Oct. 10, 2004.]

An up-close look at Magu, artist of note — and cars

The magnificent madness that is “Pomona A to Z,” my series examining the municipality one letter at a time, this week moves to the letter M.

Which M will represent Pomona in this miscellany? Among the multitude:

* Mission Family Restaurant, a coffee shop dating to the 1940s as Hull House that still ladles up hearty fare downtown.

* Masonic Temple, a grand building at Thomas and Fourth erected in 1909.

* Mountain Meadows Golf Course, a public course adding 18 holes of gentility to Ganesha Hills.

* Mother Smith, who in 1936 founded Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation.

* M & I Surplus, your one-stop shop to prepare for the apocalypse.

Marvelous! So which M will be Pomona’s milestone? Showing my moxie, it’s none of the above.

M is for Magu.

Who’s Magu, you ask? That’s Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, the pioneering Chicano artist from East L.A. who now calls Pomona’s Arts Colony home.

His credo is hard to argue with.

“I aim to reflect Latino experience in art,” Magu told me.

But how he does it doesn’t conform to the fine arts world.

Lowrider cars, pyramids, Mexican altars and bright, bright colors are among his hallmarks.

He once put on a slide show for art students at UC Irvine. Subject: graffiti. He views it as ethnic calligraphy.

“That’s not art. That’s what you people do,” one student told him.

Yet Magu is no primitive: He has a master’s in fine arts.

As he tells it, teachers always advised him to draw from experience. Is it his fault his experience involves classic cars and junk-art barrio gardens?

Early criticism only emboldened him.

“At that point,” Magu told me, “I knew I was onto something.”

For three decades Magu, 64, has had fame, or at least notoriety, as a painter, sculptor and muralist.

In 1974, as a member of the art collective Los Four, Magu helped curate a groundbreaking exhibit of Chicano art at the staid L.A. County Museum of Art.

More recently, he designed the Hollywood and Vine subway station with car-themed art on its tiles.

Two of his pieces just left the L.A. County Fair, and more Magu is now at Pomona’s dA Center for the Arts.

But let’s back up. Why the nickname?

It came in adolescence when friends noticed him crowding close to art to get a closer squint, just like Mr. Magoo, the nearsighted cartoon character.

He didn’t like the name but eventually embraced it. His live/work studio is even dubbed Magulandia. His kingdom includes two subjects: his grown son, Naiche, and a friend, Ricardo Silva, both fellow artists who room with him.

Crowded with art, furniture, an upright piano and even Magu’s 1954 Chevy pickup, the ground-floor studio is a former machine shop with a rollup door.

(I suppose lugging the Chevy into an upstairs loft would have been impractical.)

Encouraged by a friend, Magu moved to the nascent Arts Colony in 1999 and instantly added cachet. His new address has practical benefits over L.A.

“People ask why I live in Pomona. I say: ‘Parking,'” Magu joked.

Since 1994, the colony has succeeded in populating the near-empty blocks of downtown west of Garey Avenue, and even lured a Starbucks. Yet rising property values are putting the squeeze on artists.

Magu, who said he’s never made much money, cut his 3,000-square-foot space in half to economize.

Although he complains a lot, Magu’s work and themes are sunnier — at least on the surface — and in conversation he frequently pauses to smile and josh.

“I’m going to tell you my secrets,” Magu said. “Humor. I think humor softens people’s view of my culture.”

Whimsy and Mexican folk art traditions cloak his ideas to make them more palatable, he said.

Because Chicanos, his preferred term, are torn between two cultures and are never entirely accepted by either, they make up a third, hybrid culture, he argues.

Thus, his art employs images Latinos in the Southwest grew up on: cartoons, TV icons, altars, exaggerated cars, garish colors, cactuses, burritos and tacos.

Visual puns abound. Verbal puns pepper his conversation.

“I use the car,” Magu said, “as a cultural vehicle.”

I trust he wasn’t steering me wrong.

(David Allen, this newspaper’s millstone, writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.)

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  • “Hal Linker”

    Oh Magu, you’ve done it again!

  • JMac

    What in the name of John Milton is going on?? “Hal Linker” with a post length under 300 words?

  • Jim L

    On the northeast corner of Holt and Palomares in Pomona there sits a Mexican restaurant whose current name escapes me at the moment. The building has been occupied by a few different restaurants over the years but I was wondering if anyone remembers the name of the original restaurant. I was thinking it was Hull House, like the Mission Blvd location, but now I’m not sure. Anyone remember?

    [You may be right. I believe the Mexican restaurant now is El Mocajete and before that it was Osuna’s. It was another Mexican restaurant for years and years but the name instantly goes out of my head every time I hear it. — DA]

  • Jim L

    For several years it was La Cabana which opened in the early ’70s. If I’m not mistaken, La Cabana was the first restaurant to occupy the building after the unidentified original restaurant closed.

    [La Cabana! That’s the one. — DA]

  • JMac

    The first Mexican restaurant was named La Cabana. It was a Hull House, and I believe that was the original restaurant, but not certain.