“I bought what I liked” – San Gabriel Valley Tribune
For an art collector whose name appears on an 11 million dollar museum, Cheech Marin is not one for formality. As we pull out chairs for a conversation inside the main gallery, he says to me, “Lift a stump, rest your rump.”
We’re talking inside the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture, the Riverside Museum which opens to the public on Saturday. Inside the newly renovated 1960s library, the museum will feature a rotating selection of the 550 paintings and other works Marin donated.
To spread the word, the 75-year-old actor and comedian is doing back-to-back interviews in half-hour increments today, four before mine and one to follow. (Don’t worry, this one is the best.)
Friendly and enthusiastic, Marin never tires of talking about art, a passion he traces back to his Catholic childhood in South LA. Bored during mass, he wondered about ecclesiastical art, which passed over his head both literally and figuratively.
“For a small child, the mass is endless and they speak in a foreign language. On the ceiling, a guy in sheets is walking on clouds. And why are they barbecuing that guy over there? remembers Marin laughing. “The two principles of Mexican entertainment: laughter and gore.”
An older cousin used to assign study subjects. Cheech was tasked with learning about world art. He started his research at his local library, then moved on to LACMA after hearing he should see paintings in person.
“At the age of 11, I knew Western art. I could name paintings, say where they are in the history of the world,” says Marin.
After college at Northridge, he briefly earned a living as a potter before meeting Tommy Chong in the late 1960s and forming a comedy duo, Stiller & Meara. I mean, Cheech & Chong.
“When I had success with Cheech & Chong, I had money to collect art and fame to proselytize,” says Marin. “I bought three pieces at the same time, from George Yepes, Carlos Almaraz and Frank Romero.”
He embarked on his new passion the same way he collected marbles, baseball cards and stamps as a child. His hobby only picked up speed in the 1990s when he had a regular role on “Nash Bridges” and the money that came with it.
“I should have joined a support group, Chicano Art Collectors Anonymous,” he says.
He could have been lonely, I suggest. “Yeah,” he nods, “I would have been the only one there.”
Few people or institutions seriously collected Mexican-American art. “All the masterpieces of Chicano art were still available for purchase,” marvels Marin.
The billionaire collector Eli Broad, who founded the Broad Museum, is sometimes said to have chased trends in modern art. Did Marin follow the trends of Chicano art?
“There was no trend to follow,” says Marin. “I bought what I liked. And I had a good eye. He came to see 10,000 images. Painting must speak to me. I stand in front of a board with a lot of knowledge.
His mentor, Richard Duardo, an artist and printer, guided him to artists, some of them in Texas, and it was then that Marin realized that Chicano art was not limited to South America. California.
Painters would also refer him to other painters, “if they weren’t mad at them that week,” says Marin. “You meet a painter, you know 20 painters.”
We stop to rest our butts and stroll through the main gallery to see part of “Cheech Collects”, the inaugural exhibition, which features nearly 100 works by 44 painters. (“Cheech Collects II” is coming later this year, and that will only scratch the surface of his gift.)
The painting behind him is Romero’s 1996 “Arrest of the Palateras,” an aerial view of the LAPD converging on vendors near a lakeside park.
“The town dads wanted to clean up Echo Park from prostitution and gang fights,” Marin explains, “so they went after the ice cream parlor. See the kids with their hands up? And the cop chasing the cotton candy seller?
Nearby is Wayne Alaníz Healy’s “Una Tarde en Meoqui” (An Afternoon in Meoqui), an acrylic of a rural barbecue.
It’s like a union of Norman Rockwell and Jackson Pollock, Marin says, explaining how Healy finished the family scene and then added accents by squirting paint out of mustard bottles, which he leans on for the pantomime.
“It’s always in my kitchen, no matter what house I live in,” Marin says of the painting. “Now it’s here.”
We take in “Get Them Out of the Car” by John M. Valadez, a photo-realistic work done in pastels following a gang shootout. Pastels aren’t just for “flowers and trees,” says Marin.
He jokes that Eloy Torrez’s portrait of himself in the Renaissance style is “like ‘The Mona Lisa’.” He comments that two young artists, Sandy Rodriguez and Margaret Garcia, are “exploding”. Maybe he’s anticipating trends, not chasing them.
I had asked earlier if any parts he wanted had gotten away. We come to the one who almost did.
Marin had seen Benito Huerta’s “Exile Off Main Street” in Houston, a cubist-style painting on black velvet of Jaura prostitutes. “I wanted to buy it. I went around the museum and when I came back it had sold out,” says Marin, chagrined.
But the painting returned to the hands of the artist and when Huerta died, his son, who knew of Marin’s interest, contacted him and sold it to him.
“I got it last year. Whoever got away, didn’t get away,” Marin says with satisfaction.
His art won’t make it either. After Riverside Art Museum officials floated the idea of a museum in the city to house Marin’s collection, he agreed to donate it if the city provided the facility.
Of the finished product, considered the largest permanent assemblage of Mexican American art in the United States, he says, “This is far beyond my dream.”
As we say goodbye, Marin urges me, “Write good things about the museum. You don’t have to mention my name.
Judy Baca’s “Hitting the Wall” mural, painted on a retaining wall along the 110 Freeway, is the subject of a welcome exhibit at the Getty Center. Depicting a runner literally running through a wall, the monumental piece was commissioned for the 1984 Olympics, the first year women were allowed to run the marathon. “I thought, ‘I can do something with this,'” Baca recalled at a Getty talk on Sunday. Consider this a breakthrough all around.
David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, three stumbles. Email [email protected], call 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.