Actor Cheech Marin's Chicano Art Collection Opens At LACMA

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The second Chicano-themed exhibit of the year opened recently at the L.A. County Museum of Art. It's a show of nearly 50 paintings, most from the collection of Cheech Marin, a Southland native who's applied some of his fame and fortune to his passion. Marin shares his collection with KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Actor Cheech Marin teamed up with partner Tommy Chong to create some masterpieces of lowbrow.

Cheech Marin (singing, to electric guitar): Mexican-Americans don't like to go to the movies where the dude has to wear contact lenses to make his blue eyes brown, 'cause don't it make my brown eyes blue?

Guzman-Lopez: Years before the film "Up in Smoke," 12-year-old Cheech Marin pursued the highbrow in the San Fernando Valley.

Cheech Marin: I used to go into the library and take out all the art books and look at them, and just to familiarize myself with who was what. Oh that's Cezanne, oh that's Picasso, that's Miro, that's Kandinksky.

Guzman-Lopez: Marin, a third generation Mexican-American, or Chicano, as he prefers to be called, reconciled his tastes and assembled over 20 years what's now considered one of the most important private collections of Chicano art in the United States.

About one-fifth of Marin's nearly 400-piece art collection is traveling to a dozen cities on an eight-year tour. The LACMA exhibit features 48 works by Los Angeles Chicano painters. All but 13 belong to Marin.

The museum incorporated its own Chicano art holdings and works owned by actor Nicolas Cage and film director Oliver Stone. Two four and half foot square paintings by East L.A. muralist Wayne Alaniz Healy grace LACMA's gallery entrance. Marin says they're among the favorites in his collection.

Marin: He's kind of Norman Rockwell meets Jackson Pollock, you know, with his technique. He has this overlaid paint technique; it's really brilliant in the way it illuminates, it makes the paintings become electric. This one is called "Una Tarde en Maoqui," which is a little Mexican town that his wife's parents are from.

Guzman-Lopez: But Norman Rockwell, as Alaniz Healy does in this painting, never painted a small town Mexican feast, complete with a roasted goat head centerpiece. Other paintings depict Chicano neighborhoods and historical events. There's also graffiti art, cactus scenes, and urban landscapes.

Some are dreamlike. Others seem very real. The oil on canvas "Sunset Crash," by the late artist Carlos Almaraz, depicts multi-story freeway overpasses and several car crashes in mid-air. Marin says he knows that freeway well.

Marin: It comes out of East L.A. and goes to Downey. And in the early days they didn't have guardrails. And I've seen cars go off this head first, bang into the lower deck. And it scared the hell out of me when I was a kid. So that every time I went onto the freeway I would make a sign of the cross and say a prayer.

Guzman-Lopez: Whatever the topic, these are painters whose accomplishments Marin considers on a par with the masters he encountered years ago in the books at the Granada Hills public library.

The exhibit's called "Los Angelenos: Chicano Painters of L.A." It's mounted at LACMA's galleries next to the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

Marin: The reason I wanted to have it in this building, LACMA West, because this is the most prestigious little wing of the museum. It's not in the main building, but it's where they put the special shows. Van Gogh was here. King Tut was here. And we belong here.

Guzman-Lopez: Accomplished Chicano art has belonged at LACMA for decades, Marin says, and he concedes that's changing. For the summer at least, LACMA appears to be Chicano art's biggest cheerleader.

Marin's show joins Phantom Sightings, an exhibit of younger, more conceptual Chicano artists. Many of them were inspired by the painters in the galleries next door.