Monday, February 5, 2007

"Cheech" Marin

The evolution of Richard “Cheech” Marin continues. Already the path has taken him from counterculture comic to children’s entertainer. His latest incarnation is that of art collector.

Formerly half of the 1970s comic duo Cheech & Chong, Marin has distanced himself from his past. While his former partner Tommy Chong toured the standup circuit and portrayed an affable pothead on “That ’70s Show,” Marin played it straight. He’s gone the Disney route with a voice-over role in “The Lion King” issued a CD for children called “Cheech the School Bus Driver” and even played a San Francisco police inspector for five seasons on the CBS TV show “Nash Bridges.”

Marin has emerged as a leading collector of Chicano art. His collection is on loan for a five-year, 15-city tour and on display in his book, “Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge." The second stop was in the Smithsonian Institute, lending the previously ignored style of art greater weight.

The Chicano art movement dawned as Mexican-Americans picked up brushes and began to paint, at first, murals on the walls of Los Angeles buildings.

Marin, a third-generation American and father of three, has long mined his Chicano roots for his comedy, from playing the stoned Pedro during his Cheech & Chong days to his post-Chong role in “Born in East L.A.,” a movie about a Mexican-American being accidentally deported, which Marin wrote and directed. The success of Cheech & Chong enabled Marin to begin collecting the art he saw around him in Los Angeles.

Marin takes his roots seriously these days. And anyone used to hearing the famous routines of Cheech & Chong will be surprised at how articulately Marin speaks, without a trace of “dude” or “hey, man.” Speaking on the phone from California, Marin sounds thoughtful and passionate about the Chicano art movement.

How did you get interested in art?
From a very early age, I educated myself in art because I couldn’t do it. I started learning about it. Like in about fifth grade, sixth grade, I started going to the library, checking out all the art books and familiarizing myself with all the world’s painters. By the time I hit eighth grade, I was really knowledgeable and I could tell a Renoir from a Rembrandt, a Monet from a Manet. I just always loved art. And I liked learning about it.

What about art appeals to you?
Just the way, the expression of the different artists, how they did it and the techniques and what it represented for their age.

You said you couldn’t do it.
No. I was terrible. I couldn’t make a stick guy. All my stick men looked like they had encephalitis or something.

When did you start collecting?
I’d always been a collector of something. When I was a kid, it was baseball cards or marbles or matchbook covers. I remember early in the Cheech & Chong days I started collecting art nouveau and art deco when I had some money. So then when I got married to my wife, I didn’t really know anything about contemporary art. She was a painter. She started taking me around to all these galleries and that’s when I discovered some Chicano painters. Their imagery struck me immediately. I mean, I was just drawn to it. And also what I recognized was their level of painting because I’d been educated in recognizing great paintings, and this definitely was great painting.

So you decided to devote your attention to Chicano art?
Yeah. I started buying it and the more I saw it, the more I became enraptured by it and there were so many artists. I didn’t want to do anything else. Very early I saw a bigger picture forming here. It represented a school. It was about something. All these artists were saying something about a specific experience. That’s what made it a school. It’s not necessarily a strict stylistic concern the way they put paint on canvas, but what they were chronicling was the Chicano experience, a multitude of venues, either historical or philosophical or religious or emotional or abstract even.

Can you say a person is a Chicano artist because of what they paint, or is it the fact that they have a Chicano surname?
I think it’s mostly at this point because they have a Chicano surname and they are painting about the Chicano experience. All these paintings in the show have to do with the Chicano experience in one way or another. When you look at the world through Chicano eyes, that’s what these artists see, and that’s what they put on canvas.

Do you think having this exhibit and being in the Smithsonian is going to elevate the attention paid to Chicano artists?
Oh, absolutely. It can’t do anything else but. They’ve been known regionally for a long time, but what I wanted to do is use this tour to bust them out of regionalism into the national and international scene. The thing is that most people don’t know what a Chicano is, much less what their art looks like. So this is an education for everyone. I always say that you can’t love or hate Chicano art unless you see it. And this is an opportunity to be seen in mainstream museums that everybody can go to. This legitimizes that whole school of painting that they’ve been doing for 30 years.

How large is your collection now?
It’s large. Maybe about 170, 180 paintings.

Do you have room to display all of them?
No. I have a lot of it in my house, but at some point I realized that I was going to put on a show so I started buying big art and that went straight to storage. I was just waiting for the day that I could come and put it all up. In a couple of instances, I’d never seen the paintings actually in the flesh until they were put up on the walls of the San Antonio museum.

That was the first stop on the tour?
Yeah. Opened up in San Antonio. From there it went to the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian, that’s the place for art.
Yeah. It’s real prestigious to play there. We were a huge, huge success there while we were there.

Was the Smithsonian exhibit hard to put together?
The whole tour was hard to put together because in the days of dwindling support for the arts, to put on a show you really have to have it sponsored. It took a lot of years to finally get the sponsorship. Through the good graces and support of the Target Stores and Hewlett-Packard, we have been able to put on a five-year, 15-city tour, which is really unprecedented. I’m thrilled. Every opening we have is just like Christmas all over again.

You said that some of the paintings you didn’t see until they were on display in San Antonio. How did that work — that you didn’t see them until they were on display?
Well, some of the artists that I had bought without seeing the actual artwork, I had some of them on slides and I knew their work intimately, so I knew how the painting would look, I knew the dimensions. So I had faith that what I saw on the slide was going to be faithfully represented on canvas. I just would buy it and have it safely sent away.

Are Chicano artists seeking you out?
Oh, yeah. All the time. And that’s good because the school is ever-evolving, each new generation — now we’re into our fourth generation of artists — adds another twist and another level of interpretation to it. It’s a constantly evolving story because the experience is ever-evolving.

Were people who were painting a couple of generations ago painting different subjects?
Yeah. Different artists evolve differently. At the beginning of Chicano art, it was primarily political and/or folkish kind of art. That’s really what kept it out of mainstream museums because it was viewed as agitprop and/or folk art, and it wasn’t considered true fine art. In the interim, the artists, the individual artists had developed their own individual concerns and there hadn’t been really any show that did them justice strictly as painters. That’s why I wanted to have this show be only painters.

Do you miss these works when they’re traveling around the country? You’re going to be without them for a long time.
Well, yeah, sometimes I do. But it’s like sending your kids off to college. You’re glad that they’re out of the house and you see them every once in a while when they come home or I go out to see them, and that’s fine. But the work that they’re doing, the missionary work basically that they’re doing, is much more important than having them hang on my walls in my house, I think.

That’s a good way to put it. Are there other people collecting Chicano art now?
Yes. That’s starting to be a big groundswell now. Not only with the advent of the show, but now we have a book out there that’s really the most important aspect, after the show. It’s called “Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge.” It’s now in all book stores, Barnes and Noble, Borders, It’s doing very, very well. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book.

Did that take you a long time to put together?
Yep. You know, nothing is easy out there in the commercial world. I wanted this to be the definitive Chicano painting show and to go only in the biggest museums because I wanted to establish Chicano art in the mainstream. This is the big banners-waving-trumpets-blaring show that establishes it as an American school, probably the first recognized school of painting in 50 years.

Does your name open doors to these museums or is it the quality of the art?
Well, both. It’s funny. The guy who was helping me curate this, Rene Yanez, he’s been on the Chicano scene forever. He said, “You know, we do a show and maybe one reporter shows up, but when your name is attached to it, 100 show up.” So they do recognize the celebrity aspect. I use that in order to popularize this art because I think it’s worthy.

How many years did it take to put this together, to get enough where you said you had enough for an exhibit?
Almost 20. It’s almost 20 years. I got into it very early. It was a fortunate confluence of events in that I was early on the scene, I recognized what it was and I had the money to buy it, and support a lot of these artists.

Why is it important that this art be preserved and collected?
Well, first of all because it’s really good. These paintings are really, really good. And they represent a time and place in history — kind of almost like Cheech & Chong. They represent a movement that evolved into a statement of a cultural experience and as such is almost the quintessential immigrant experience. There hasn’t been another school of art or a group that has done that in quite a long time, maybe even if ever. It’s great that these painters should be rewarded for continuing to work in the trenches even though they weren’t recognized for a very long time.

Do you have to explain to some people what Chicano is all about, what that word means?
Sure. Absolutely. I mean, 90 percent of the country doesn’t know what Chicano is, much less what their art looks like. So it’s an educational process as well.

What defines Chicano?
Chicano is a Mexican-American. Chicano was originally a derisive term by Mexicans to other Mexicans living in this country. The supposition is that they were no longer Mexicanos, they were Chicanos, they were like Kmart Mexicans, some cheaper version because they had sold out their country and left it. But to the American populace, we were still Mexicans. We were this group of people caught in between. Are we Mexican or are we American? Are your influences one or the other? That’s what a Chicano is. He’s caught in between his Mexican past and his American future. Where those two worlds collide and influence each other is where the Chicano art springs up. Then, depending on where you came from, Chicano was either just a term or it was loaded with a lot of political significance, especially like in Texas or San Antonio. The Chicanos of the late ’60s took that up, they were the radical Chicanos who demanded the rights to education and job opportunities. The whole process of this show is reclaiming and redefining that word as a term of cultural pride and identity.

It means a lot more than Hispanic or Latino.
Yeah. Chicano is specifically Mexican-American. Hispanic was a census term. Latino refers to all countries of the new world. Latinos have pride in the new world and the roots that gave them their art and their culture and their heritage and their philosophies. Of the Latino pie in the United States, fully two-thirds to three-quarters of that is Mexican. If you’re in this country and you’re Mexican, the minute you step into this country, you’re on your way to becoming a Chicano.

It seems as though you and Chong couldn’t have followed a more diverse path. Chong is still doing a lot of the drug humor and you’ve done a broader range of things.
Yeah. Kind of the basis for the split-up was Tommy wanted to keep doing that. I felt we had kind of used that subject up and it was time to move on to do other things. He was comfortable doing that, and I was uncomfortable trying to do the same thing again and again and again.

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