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High on Chicano Art

Cheech Marin's Collection is Wowing 'Em at the Smithsonian

July 07, 2002|ABEL SALAS

For a guy who spent much of his career "up in smoke" as half of the counterculture comedy duo Cheech and Chong, Cheech Marin makes a convincing fine-art connoisseur. In the last 20 years, the goofball pothead foil of out-of-his-gourd Tommy Chong has amassed a personal stash of Chicano art that is now in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution.

Disparaging remarks from a grade school teacher on his first stick figure drawings did not inhibit Marin's love for art, he says, but rather intensified his need to surround himself with it. Growing up as a third-generation Angeleno in the late '50s and early '60s, Marin devoured art books with a vengeance. By junior high, he was "conversant in world art," able to "tell a Rembrandt from a Renoir, a Monet from a Manet." Years later, encouraged by his wife, painter Patti Heid, he gained familiarity with contemporary art through visits to Santa Monica galleries. In the early '80s, Marin noticed that Chicano art was attracting an audience in the larger L.A. scene, and the Chicano punk movement added an avant-garde mystique. Marin bought his first painting in 1982, moved by work that represented his community and culture with a vibrant, contemporary palette.

"It resonated with me both on a very personal level because I identified with the imagery and subject matter, and on a world art level," Cheech says of his affinity for the sophisticated work of artists such as Frank Romero, Gronk, Carlos Almaraz, George Yepes and Carmen Lomas Garza.

Awarded a Grammy for Best Comedy Album with Chong in 1973, Marin went solo in 1986 and has credits including "Tin Cup" and "Spy Kids," the latter a film by Robert Rodriguez. His PCH home north of Malibu is outfitted with terrazzo tile and wall-sized windows that open toward the sunset. The walls under a loft-high, exposed-beam ceiling are riddled with color and texture. A rare Gronk pastel, a Romero neon back-lit painting on wood and a lush Yepes Madonna animate Marin's conversation as much as the coffee he shares with his guests.

Billed by curator Rene Yanez as the most comprehensive showing of Chicano art yet mounted, "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge" draws heavily from Marin's private collection. In all, 82 pieces by 26 artists--65 from Marin's collection of about 150 works--will tour 15 cities in five years. "It's where traditional Mexican met urban angst," says Marin. "Where those two edges coincided, they blurred into what we know as Chicano art and sensibility."

While some activists have bristled at the inclusion of work devoid of the political content sometimes deemed a requirement of "Chicano art," Marin remains ecstatic at the response to the show and plans to publish a coffee table catalogue this fall. "You make it cool enough that everybody wants to be there, in order to change the charge on that word and reinterpret it as a term of pride and integrity."--abel salas

"Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge," Smithsonian Institution, Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Drive, SW, Washington, D.C.; (202) 357- 2700. Closes Sept. 3.

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