When I say “Cheech,” most people think “…and Chong.” Right? But Cheech Marin – the actor, director, counter-culture humorist, and musician, who began his career as the lovable stoner cruising around East LA with his blissed-out buddy Tommy Chong – is more than just a Hollywood comedy icon. Those in the art world have known it for a while, but Cheech has been amassing one of the world’s foremost private collections of Chicano art for almost 40 years. Thanks to efforts by the Amarillo Museum of Art, now our region is able to experience this unprecedented collection firsthand.
The Chicano Collection, on display at the Amarillo Museum of Art, now through March 27th, includes more than 75 paintings from Cheech’s nationally renowned collection.
So what does he mean by “Chicano?” According to Cheech and the artists in his collection, it’s that space in-between Mexican and American – but not belonging to either. Chicanos inhabit a shared cultural space that’s emerged in the shadow of the American dream, from the barrios of East LA to the migrant farming communities of Texas and the American southwest.
According to painter Jose Lozano, “It was an unspoken understanding that you were supposed to forget who you were and blend in. Everything in your house, whatever you did in your house, and whatever you learned in Mexico, it was irrelevant.”
The paintings in the collection all share a common energy. They evoke life, movement, energy, color, and a graceful beauty that’s inextricable from the common experience of feeling invisible, misunderstood, or feared. Painter Adan Hernández says, “If art is not about truth, then it is worthless. The reason there is so much drama in my work is because there’s a lot of drama in the barrios.”
Be prepared for photo-realist cityscapes; expressionistic vignettes; folk-art portraits; and freeze-frame panoramas of forgotten history. The collection communicates the struggle and integrity of this cultural segment largely overlooked by fine art museums, until now.
In the dawn of his awakening as an art collector, Cheech explains what initially drew him to these images: “Not only did the images resonate with me, that this is part of my upbringing, this is something I know, but I also appreciate it on a painting level. I knew at this point what good painting was – and then I came to the conclusion that they were all kind of painting about the Chicano experience -- what it meant for them to be a Chicano, and they had different routes. But what they’re talking about was the same, so what bound them together as a school was this common experience of Chicano, in a variety of methods that they expressed it.”
According to Seattle gallery owner Daniel Saxon, “Museums, prior to Cheech’s involvement, had never paid much attention to art by Chicanos.” Cheech claims his intention for this exhibit was to raise awareness about Chicago artists among mainstream galleries and museums. “We should be going in the front door with the banner waving and the trumpets blaring,” he says. Advocates for the collection delight in the attention it has received, drawing crowds of those unfamiliar with fine art, many of whom have never stepped foot into a museum.
While the paintings could not be more different, the collection resonates with a common awareness that’s part Mexican, part American, and all Chicano.
The Chicano Collection can be seen at the Amarillo Museum of Art, 2200 South Van Buren. Admission is free. For more information, please visit www.amarilloart.org. If you’d like to meet Cheech, he’ll be speaking on Tuesday, February 9th at 7:30 pm at the Globe News Center. Tickets at panhandletickets.com.