‘I bought what I liked’ – San Bernardino Sun

For an art collector whose name is on an $11 million museum, Cheech Marin is not one for formality. As we pull up chairs for a conversation inside the main gallery, he tells me, “Pull up a stump, rest your rump.”

We’re talking inside The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture, the Riverside museum that will open to the public Saturday. Inside the newly renovated 1960s library, the museum will showcase a rotating selection of the 550 paintings and other works Marin has donated.

To get the word out, the actor and comedian, 75, is doing interviews this day back to back in half-hour blocks, four before mine and one more to follow. (Don’t worry, this one is the best.)

Friendly and enthusiastic, Marin isn’t tired of talking about art, a passion he dates to his Catholic childhood in South L.A. Bored during Mass, he would puzzle over the ecclesiastical art, which was literally and figuratively over his head.

“To a little kid, the Mass is endless and they’re talking in a foreign language. On the ceiling, a guy in sheets is walking on the clouds. And why are they barbecuing that guy in the corner?” Marin recalls, chuckling. “The two tenets of Mexican entertainment: laughter and gore.”

An older cousin used to assign out topics for study. 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.

“By the time I was 11 I was familiar with Western art. I could name paintings, say where they fit in world history,” Marin says.

After college in Northridge he briefly made 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 found success with Cheech & Chong, I had money to collect art and the celebrity to proselytize for it,” Marin says. “I bought three pieces at the same time, by George Yepes, Carlos Almaraz and Frank Romero.”

He threw himself into his new passion the same way he’d collected marbles, baseball cards and stamps as a boy. His hobby only accelerated in the 1990s when he had a regular role on “Nash Bridges” and the money that came with it.

“I should have been in a support group, Chicano Art Collectors Anonymous,” he says.

It might have been lonely, I suggest. “Yeah,” he agrees, “I would have been the only one there.”

Few people or institutions were collecting Mexican American art in a serious way. “All the masterpieces of Chicano art were still available for purchase,” Marin marvels.

Billionaire collector Eli Broad, who founded The Broad Museum, is sometimes said to have chased trends in modern art. Did Marin chase trends in Chicano art?

“There were no trends to follow,” Marin says. “I bought what I liked. And I had a good eye. It came from seeing 10,000 images. The painting has to speak to me. I stand in front of a painting with a lot of knowledge.”

His mentor, Richard Duardo, an artist and printer, guided him to artists, some of them in Texas, which is when Marin realized Chicano art was not limited to Southern California.

Painters would also steer him to other painters, “if they weren’t mad at them that week,” Marin says. “You meet one painter, you know 20 painters.”

We stop resting our rumps and walk around the main gallery to see a portion of “Cheech Collects,” the inaugural exhibition, which has nearly 100 works by 44 painters. (“Cheech Collects II” is coming later this year, and that will still only scratch the surface of his donation.)

The painting behind him is Romero’s 1996 “The Arrest of the Palateras,” an aerial view of the LAPD converging on vendors by a lakeside park.

“City fathers wanted to clean up Echo Park of prostitution and gang fighting,” Marin explains, “so they went after the ice cream man. 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 from mustard bottles, which he bends over to pantomime.

“It’s always in my kitchen, whatever home I live in,” Marin says of the painting. “Now it’s here.”

We take in John M. Valadez’s “Getting Them Out of the Car,” a photo-realistic work done in pastels of the aftermath of a gang shooting. Pastels aren’t just for “flowers and trees,” Marin says.

He jokes that the portrait of himself done by Eloy Torrez in Renaissance style is “like ‘The Mona Lisa.’” He comments that two younger artists, Sandy Rodriguez and Margaret Garcia, are “blowing up.” Maybe he’s anticipating trends, not chasing them.

I’d asked earlier if any pieces he’d wanted had got away. We come to one that almost did.

Marin had seen Benito Huerta’s “Exile Off Main Street” in Houston, a Cubist-style painting on black velvet of Jaurez prostitutes. “I wanted to buy it. I did a lap around the museum and when I got back, it had sold,” Marin says, chagrined.

But the painting returned to the artist’s hands, and when Huerta died, his son, who knew of Marin’s interest, got in touch and sold it to him.

“I got it last year. The one that got away, didn’t get away,” Marin says with satisfaction.

His art won’t get away either. After Riverside Art Museum officials broached the idea of a museum in the city to keep Marin’s collection together, he agreed to donate it if the city would provide the facility.

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