It's a battle won for Cheech Marin

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."

For Marin, fighting for Chicano art's rightful place was not unlike standing his ground as a child against schoolyard taunts. Richard Anthony Marin was 10 when his family moved from South-Central Los Angeles to the Valley suburbs of Granada Hills. One day, while waiting to play volleyball, one of his new white classmates called out, "Hey, Blackie, get to the back of the line."

"I just hit him as hard as I could," recalls the actor and comedian, a second-generation Mexican American and son of a LAPD officer. "I was a little kid, but I wasn't afraid of nobody."

Marin, 61, says he got into fights almost daily over racial slurs until he transferred to a Catholic school and the name-calling stopped. Instead of cracking skulls he started cracking open books, pushed by an intellectual rivalry with his cousins back in Los Angeles. They quizzed one another in Latin and competed to prove who was smarter.

Marin nurtured his own art appreciation by poring over art books in the library, studying the masters of classical painting. Those boyhood traits -- his love of art and his fighting spirit -- would serve him well later as a champion of Chicano art.

Marin, twice married, is dating Russian pianist Natasha Rubin. He lives in Malibu and continues to make films, appearing as the priest in the upcoming "The Perfect Game," about the 1957 Little League team from Monterrey, Mexico. And he continues to find thrills in art collecting, with a recent acquisition from up and comer Shizu Saldamando.

At times, he could be the proverbial bull in the china shop. He threatened to wage a public relations war against LACMA over what he saw as the museum's resistance to Chicano art. Art experts across the country, he says, rebuffed his contention that Chicanos constituted a legitimate school of American art. After all, what does a comedian who owns his own line of gourmet hot sauces know about fine art?

"You can argue all you want," Marin recalls responding, "but one day I'm going to put all these paintings up in one room, and you're going to see it."

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"Los Angelenos/Chicano Painters of L.A.: Selections From the Cheech Marin Collection," through Nov. 2, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. (323) 857-6000 or www.lacma.org.

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agustin.gurza@latimes.com

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