Like a symphony conductor with the wonder of creativity at his fingertips, Gregorio Luke gave a special hand signal during his slide lecture on Mexican painter Diego Rivera on Saturday night. After displaying images from a single projector, he unfurled his fingers and commanded: "Enter mural."
The audience gasped as the image dramatically unfolded before their eyes. There, projected in three seamless sections onto an exterior wall of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, was a stunning life-size image of Rivera's "History of Mexico," an epic fresco with scores of figures spanning 10 centuries and 15 yards, the width of seven parking spaces marked on the ground in front of it.
Luke's nighttime lecture on Rivera's life and work kicked off the museum's annual "Murals Under the Stars," a multimedia presentation featuring realistic mural reproductions using three digital projectors. The series, launched five years ago, continues with two more lectures, Saturday on painter Frida Kahlo, Rivera's wife, and Aug. 13 on muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Kahlo was not a muralist, but her paintings are filled with iconic imagery that will be analyzed using the large projections.
On a balmy summer night, the event feels more like a relaxed festival than a stuffy art talk, the parking lot turned into an impromptu auditorium with 600 folding chairs. Before the presentation, visitors sip wine or coffee and stroll through the museum's gift shop and galleries. When darkness falls, the show starts, like a drive-in movie. It can be seen from homes along the perimeter of the property, where children are heard playing in the background.
"It's very important to reintroduce art into everyday life," says Luke, director of the Alamitos Avenue museum, which is undergoing a major expansion. "I would very much like to bring lectures like these to the broadest public possible. People are moved emotionally with these works."
Luke got the idea for mural projections in an unexpected way. In 1989, he was a cultural attache at the Mexican Embassy in Washington when a planned exhibition by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was canceled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art because of its graphic content. In protest, advocates projected the censored images onto the gallery's marble facade.
"I thought, 'Hmmm. I could do something like that for the Mexican murals,' " Luke recalls.
His first art lecture was on a bus excursion from Washington to New York commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution for the exhibition "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries," which toured the U.S. in 1990-91. Asked to give an introduction to passengers, Luke turned the trip into a three-hour unscripted talk using video screens.
He developed his wall projection concept with the help of Richard Mower, then a professor of art and interior design at Montgomery College in Maryland. Mower's students helped take the photos still used today in Luke's presentations. Some were taken on site; others are photographs of reproductions. In some cases, the images from the reproductions are more vivid than the real murals, which tend to fade over time.
Mower, who retired this year after almost 40 years at the community college, calls Luke a pioneer. "Special lenses and lighting are necessary for shooting large pieces of artwork so that when they are exhibited through multiple projectors they connect and are viewed as one large mural without divisions," Mower, 76, explained in an interview via e-mail. "Gregorio himself has perfected this imagery."
Luke, a dynamic extemporaneous speaker, is scheduled to deliver talks on Mexican artists in December at the Florence Biennale, the fashion and art convocation in the Italian city.
Luke, who is married with a 3-year-old son, says he does intense homework to prepare for a lecture. He wakes before dawn and studies for four to five hours, "like if I were a violinist." By the time he talks, he has absorbed the subject so thoroughly he puts his notes aside and speaks with the passion of a preacher.
Just before his lecture Saturday, Luke was holed up in a back room of the museum, books and notes spread out on a folding table. Dressed in a dark pinstripe suit and red tie, he reviewed his source material one last time. It included sketches of murals with each figure identified in handwriting, information he would use to great effect as he strolled across the projected image of Rivera's "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park," offhandedly indicating with a laser pointer its many characters and their represented dreams.
"The goal is for it to look just so easy and seem so natural that people grasp all you're saying in the most simple way," says Luke. "That's the most important thing, that you're not being pretentious or talking down to anybody. That you're talking from direct experience."