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Cheech Marin Takes Chicano Art Mainstream

by Mary Jane Garza

Chicano! A word both despised and revered is the focus of a landmark exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art in San Antonio, Texas. "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge," features almost 80 paintings by over 20 Mexican American artists, mostly from California and Texas. The exhibit is culled largely from actor Cheech Marin's private collection.
Marin began acquiring art from young Chicano artists in the early 1970s. His collecting not only has helped support many struggling artists, but has also provided a home for some extraordinary canvases, many of which will be donated to museums after the exhibit's five-year run.
The display was curated by California installation artist Rene Yanez, who did wonders working within the parameters that Cheech had for the show. It is a very urban exhibit which only includes paintings, Cheech's main passion. Among artists represented are Cesar Martinez, Patsi Valdez, Carmen Lomas Garza, Gronk, John Valadez, Mel Casas and many other painters from the 1970s. Also included are newcomers Cruz Ortiz and Vincent Valdez.
As a child, Cheech yearned to become an artist. During his developing years he taught himself about the different traditional schools of art by going to the local library and studying art history books. By the time he was in junior high, he knew a Manet from a Picasso from a Gaugin. Cheech also had an early passion for collecting, which has continued to this day. The Chicano movement was in full swing when his acting career took off, and Cheech Marin's interests in collecting turned to the art of the moment.
"When I first saw Chicano art, it was like hearing the Beatles for the first time," explained Cheech at a recent symposium in the San Antonio Museum of Art. "It was something. It was very, very familiar and very new at the same time. Sofia Perez, a gallery owner in California, turned me on to Texas artists. San Antonio artist Cesar Martinez was one of the very first painters I collected. But here we are formulating a school of art and I noticed that West Coast artists and Texas artists weren't communicating with each other."
Although marginalized for many years, the lines of communication have opened up over time. Many of the artists represented in this show have worked and shown together in other group exhibits.
"Chicano artists have been denied for so long entrance into mainstream museums," said Cheech. "But there is no denying what's in that big hall."
The show itself is an evolving work in progress. Due to the long touring schedule, some artists will not participate for the full five years the exhibit will be travelling. However, as some bow out, other Chicano artists will be invited to take their place.
A companion exhibit, "Chicano Now: American Expressions," a 5,000 square foot interactive multi-media display geared to families, was also recently on display in downtown San Antonio, at the Alameda Museo Americano. This multi-million dollar exhibit features videos and installations created by premier Chicano performing and independent film artists.
At "Chicano Now," viewers immersed themselves in displays which strive to create a new appreciation and understanding of Chicano life and art. One of the bigger draws of this exhibit was the flaming red and yellow mechanical low-rider that tilts, bounces and hops just like the real thing.
"Chicano Now" and "Chicano Visions" will travel together to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. this summer and to the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the fall. Other venues for the two exhibits will be announced at a later date.