Collecting: Cheech Marin


The two of us are leisurely walking through “Take 10: The Past Decade of Collecting by Cheech Marin” at the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum outside Phoenix, and Marin pauses at Patssi Valdez’s famous work Room on the Verge, where symbols of domesticity seem to swirl to some interior gust of wind. “Isn’t this great, like-bang!” he says, pointing to the painting’s concentric circles of green carpet, its dancing brooms and floating teacups. “This thing is doing the mambo-it almost comes with its own soundtrack.”

This isn’t the first time in the walk-through that Marin’s descriptions of the vibrant paintings in the exhibition have been punctuated by “bang!” and “yow!” and “whoosh!”-and it’s totally endearing. So when this admittedly star-struck reporter asks to take a cellphone photo of Marin standing by Eloy Torrez’s It’s a Brown World After All (2006), in which Marin is seen with a gold crown on his head (as Torrez’s subjects often appear), he good-naturedly agrees. “The Mona Lisa of Chicano art,” Marin quips, and then quickly points to Torrez’s use of Aztec symbology on the crown.

“Take 10” (which runs through January 24, 2016) consists of 42 works in oil, acrylic, watercolor and glass by 33 artists that have helped define Chicano art. It is Marin’s third collaboration with Mesa Contemporary Arts since the museum opened in 2005-thus the “decade” theme, even though Marin has been collecting Chicano art since the mid 1980s. Curator Patty Haberman of MCA visited Marin’s home in Los Angeles to view the dozens of works hanging there, as well as an online catalog, and reports that quite a bit of “whittling down” had to take place in order to choose the best cross-section of significant Chicano art. The result is a dazzling journey into narrative paintings, portraits, slice-of-life scenes and semi-abstracts that touch on family, ethnicity, religion, the barrio experience and even feminism, with moods  ranging from flamboyant and aggressive to serene and brooding. “Fortunately or unfortunately, Cheech has a celebrity status, and in a lot of respects, people come to see the show because of his name,” says Haberman. “But once they’re here, they get a sense of the work, they see the variety of subject matter, and then they’re drawn in because of the artwork itself.”

It’s important to know a few things about Marin that extend beyond the internationally known pot-smoking antics of Cheech and Chong. First, as an actor, comedian, writer and director with many decades of respectable work to his credit, he loves joking around and putting people at ease. Second, as probably the world’s most famous collector of Chicano art, he boasts incredible knowledge of the movement’s premier artists and their divergent styles. And he’s not afraid to discuss Chicano art with the seriousness of an academic. Third, although he has amassed more than 700 pieces-mostly paintings-he is enthusiastic about every acquisition: not for the financial investment potential, but for the opportunity to promote Chicano art. As he’s often told people, the art is a rich reflection not just of Latino traditions but also of  the political, social and spiritual pulse of modern America at large.

Mi Dia
Gustavo Alex Vargas
Mixed media with liquid gold leaf on wood
48″ x 37″
Collection of Cheech Marin
Courtesy: Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum

There’s a point in the walk-through, near a mural-like city scene called Pink Landscape (1984), by Frank Romero, when Marin turns serious in addressing long-held attitudes that “Chicanos don’t make art, they make folk art.” He reiterates what he told a sold-out crowd in a talk at the Mesa Arts Center the previous evening: “This is quintessentially American art. It got its start in the late ’60s as the visual arm of the civil rights movement, and it was highly political at the time, but it just keeps evolving.” By the ’70s, he continues, Chicano artists began differentiating themselves from each other, along with forming collectives such as ASCO (Spanish for “nausea”) and Los Four.  “They defined ‘Chicano’ from myriad viewpoints-humorous, serious, abstract-a real ‘Chicano pie.’’’

Marin’s collection offers-perhaps not all, but many-slices of that pie. Arguably, his willingness to let portions of his private collection go on tour to museums around the country has added to the public’s familiarity with Chicano art and its insights into the Chicano experience. From 2001 to 2007, Marin’s collection was the spotlight of “Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge,” a highly popular exhibit that traveled to 12 cities. At MCA, previous exhibits borrowing from the Marin collection were “Papel Chicano: Works on Paper” and “Chicanitas {size doesn’t matter},” featuring a number of paintings about 16 inches square and smaller that Marin has acquired. The latter exhibition led to Marin’s recently published art book of the same name, and “Chicanitas” is still touring. Showing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008 was “Los Angelenos/Chicano Painters of LA: Selections from the Cheech Marin Collection,” with its emphasis on LA artists (although Marin buys from artists from all over the country). In 2016, “Take 10” is slated for the Riverside Art Museum.

In the gallery next to “Take 10,” Haberman mounted “10 Pick 10” (through December 6, 2015), in which 10 prominent Chicano artists were asked to name an artist worth watching, someone not necessarily working within the Chicano aesthetic but at an important juncture in his or her career. Those artists’ works were hung right next to key works by the artists who recommended them. It’s a pay-it-forward idea that Marin wholeheartedly endorsed, which is not surprising given his proclivity for seeking out artists at various stages of their careers. Marin pauses during the walk-through to tell me about Jaime “Germs” Zacarias, whose work in “Take 10” includes the 72-inch-high acrylic on panel diptych La Batalla, two colorful figures armed with snakelike forms against a busy background of stenciling and paint drips. “I watched this guy for  years. He came out of LA lowbrow-an art school that is kind of fairytale-ish but edgy,” Marin says, noting with almost fatherly pride how much Germs has improved as a painter. It’s an example of the fulfillment Marin receives from personally touring art spaces and developing relationships with artists, instead of hiring someone to buy art for him. “It’s like having someone else do your push-ups. How do you benefit from that? The joy for me is finding these pieces and discovering new artists and watching them grow over the process of their careers.”

La Batalla (diptych right)
Jamie Germs Zacarias
Acrylic on panel
72″ x 30″
Photo: courtesy Mesa Contemporary Arts Mu

Besides Valdez, Torrez and Romero, several other pivotal Chicano artists are represented in the MCA shows. One is Ricardo Ruiz, known for depicting sleek blackbirds with human-like qualities. As Marin noted, Ruiz is an exemplar of the characteristically vibrant and exacting kind of painting that goes into Chicano art. Then there’s John Valadez, “maybe the master of all masters,” Marin remarks, who is represented with Convertible Operas, a narrative piece evoking sex, violence and commotion as rival gangs in flashy cars fight it out Capulet-versus-Montague style. Also in the show is the 10-foot-high mixed-media wheel called Oxymoderna (Aztec Calendar) by the ribald and experimental glass artists Einar and Jamex de la Torre. It’s an early example of rasquache art, or the use of found objects. Adding to Marin’s collection are artists such as Chaz Bojórquez, whose origins are in street art and graffiti, and Leo Limón of Self-Help Graphics fame, whose densely composed works often include the sacred heart icon as a key element, along with indigenous imagery.

Besides his eagerness to place the art where the public can view it, Marin regularly holds salons at his hilltop home in the Pacific Palisades, where he and his wife, classical pianist Natasha Marin, create evening affairs combining art browsing and musical performance. The Marins previously lived in an Arts and Crafts-style home in Malibu, but moved to a larger, more modern home partly because it could better accommodate Cheech’s rotating art collection. Indeed, many of the walls have track systems to avoid continually creating holes for hanging, and the paintings grace not just the living room, but the kitchen, stairway, bedrooms and scattered nooks.

In his talk to a preview-night audience at Mesa Contemporary Arts, Marin said that from a young age, growing up in a working-class LA family, he was a collector of many things, from bottle caps to baseball cards. Later in childhood, he began studying art books at the library, which helped mold his tastes in art. By the mid-1980s, with his acting career and his love of Chicano art  firmly in place, he became a regular at LA galleries and began acquiring pieces, especially by groundbreaking artists such as Romero and Valdez. “I like what I like” is a phrase often voiced by Marin. When viewers of his collection respond in kind, “it gives him great joy,” says Melissa Richardson Banks, who manages his collection and helps produce the exhibitions. “His enthusiasm for sharing-I think that’s his primary motivation,” she adds.

One of the last paintings we admire is Adan Hernández’s Ruca in the Rain (2004), in which a scantily clad woman in heels runs through a torrential downpour on a neon-lit street. “Chicano noir,” Marin interjects, adding that the viewer could come away with many interpretations. “And she’s got nice legs too.”

Lead Image:
Portrait of Cheech
Carlos Donjuan
Mixed media on wood
8″ x 8″
Collection of Cheech Marin
Photo: courtesy Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum

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Deborah Ross is a regular contributor to art ltd. and Visual Art Source and has been observing the Arizona art scene for three decades. In addition to her freelance work, she is an educator in English and journalism. She runs an independent website, Explore Art: Phoenix, that features artist profiles and exhibition reviews.