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CULTURE MIX

It's a battle won for Cheech Marin

LACMA once turned down showing his art collection. But, no surprise, he persisted.

June 14, 2008|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

After more than seven years on the road, the Chicano art collection of Cheech Marin has finally come home. Its last stop is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the hometown venue that initially turned down a show that toured nationally and drew large crowds as "Chicano Visions." A scaled-down version, titled "Los Angelenos/Chicano Painters of L.A.," opens Sunday at LACMA West. It features almost 50 paintings by some of the most influential members of the first generation of Chicano artists, including Gronk, Patssi Valdez and three of the original members of Los Four -- Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz and Gilbert "Magu" Lujan -- the collective featured in what is considered the country's first major Chicano art exhibition, shown at LACMA in 1974.

For Marin, who championed Chicano art as his personal crusade, it's not only a triumphal homecoming but a vindication for his campaign to place these artists squarely in the American mainstream. "With LACMA, it's been love-hate toward the Chicano community since the beginning," says Marin, best known as half of the comedy team of Cheech and Chong. "We've always been treated as the stepchildren. But I think that attitude is turning around now. . . . They can't ignore us anymore."

The museum's attempt to acknowledge Chicano art, spotty as it has been, predates even the earliest piece in this exhibition, Almaraz's surreal but now familiar depiction of an accident on a freeway overpass, "Sunset Crash" (1982). But exhibitions devoted to the field have been few and far between. That problem was meant to be resolved by LACMA's Latino Arts Initiative, launched in 2004. The initiative's first major show, "Phantom Sightings," currently on display, marked the first time LACMA has organized its own exhibition of contemporary Chicano art. ("Los Four" was organized by UC Irvine.)

Marin meanwhile pursued his own parallel initiative, resulting today in two overlapping Chicano art shows, an embarrassment of riches. "There's almost a positive sense of disbelief that you would have two very different Chicano art exhibitions at the same time, not just in L.A., but at the same museum," says Chon Noriega, head of the LACMA initiative, a joint effort with UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center, where he's also director. "But you realize there's a lot of space in between here that we haven't even begun to cover."

Noriega considers the shows complementary. "Phantom Sightings" focuses primarily on artists who came of age in the 1990s, some of whom don't even consider themselves Chicano. Their work is unbound by the constraints of ideology or canvas, and includes sculpture and mixed-media installations. By contrast, "Los Angelenos" features exclusively paintings, many by artists who came of age during the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s. They are mostly figurative, saturated in color, depicting vivid portraits and scenes of daily barrio life, such as Wayne Alaniz Healy's bird's-eye perspective of "Beautiful Downtown Boyle Heights" (1993) or Margaret Garcia's sensual "Eziquiel's Party" (2000). Magu's hand-painted 1950 Chevrolet is on display in the central patio.

To round out the show, some pieces were borrowed from LACMA's own collection and from other private collectors, including actors Dennis Hopper and Nicolas Cage.

The newest work is by the show's youngest artist, Vincent Valdez, who portrays a phalanx of riot police during last year's May Day demonstrations. The menacing piece, "Nothin' to See Here, Keep on Movin'," was so fresh it was still wet when unpacked for hanging.

One measure of the show's influence was the response of the workers who hang the exhibitions. They've seen it all and don't usually bother to deliver their own reviews. "They all came to me and were very vocal and forthcoming with their enjoyment, and they're not always," says Howard Fox, LACMA's curator of contemporary art. "There's something very visual and retinal about the show -- it's both for the eye and for the mind's eye."

Critics have called Marin's collection limited -- by period (too '80s), by artists' age (too old), by size of work (too big), even by color (too red). He says the museum rebuffed him at first, saying it would rather not feature individual collections, but says new director Michael Govan enthusiastically backed the show.

Marin says he just collected what he liked. "I started going to galleries on the Westside of L.A., and that's when I discovered these Chicano painters," he says, seated in the LACMA gallery. "I knew enough to recognize great art, and I had the money to acquire it and the impetus to throw my celebrity behind getting it more exposure."

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