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Carlos Almaraz, John Valdez, Frank Romero and Patssi Valdez are not household names for most of us, but for comedian Cheech Marin they are. Members of Chicano art collectives like Los Four and ASCO, they are just some of the names that first drew him in the mid-’80s to Chicano art, an obsession that compelled him to amass the most renowned collection in the world with over 700 pieces.
“I moved into this new house that’s really a gallery, so I get to put up a lot of art,” Marin tells The Hollywood Reporter on the eve of Art Los Angeles Contemporary (ALAC) art fair at Barker Hangar, Jan. 28-31. As part of the event, the performer is opening up his Pacific Palisades home for a unique VIP tour of a portion of his collection. “You can’t love Chicano art unless you see it. It’s my goal to have everyone see it.”
First glance highlights include “Two Chairs,” Almaraz’s sprawling canvas in blue, green and yellow decorating the foyer. Nearby is an illuminated glass portrait of an aqua-hued deity called “A Dios” by the de la Torre brothers. “An Afternoon in Meoqui,” Wayne Alaniz Healy’s sunny, stylized scene of a rural picnic hangs over the kitchen table, and there’s more in the dining room and upstairs in the hallway.
“He is an educational resource for us,” says Tim Fleming, founder and director of ALAC, now in its seventh year. “He’s really an invested collector who’s there to support and live with this artwork. That’s the kind of person that we love to find and we’re really honored he’s going to share the collection with our guests.”
This year’s fair is the largest yet, adding 10 international and local galleries for a total of 73, in addition to 10 publishers. Past browsers and buyers include people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Barrymore, George Lucas and Neil Patrick Harris. This year, Fleming expects an increase in attendance of about 25 percent, roughly 20,000 art lovers.
Marin, who toured portions of his collection in the aughts with “Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge,” is happy to see this type of art getting the respect it deserves. Going back to the 1930s, Mexican artists impacted New York and European art circles through people like Diego Rivera, as well as muralists who found work with the WPA during the Great Depression.
What was then grounded in political activism has since given way to personal expression but politics persist, especially in the form of street art. After a 10-year ban on murals, in 2013 L.A. began reclaiming its place as the genre’s North American capitol, reflecting cultural and political issues besetting not just Latino communities but contemporary mainstream culture.
“There is never enough institutional acceptance. They were stonewalled out of being in the major institutions, and even smaller institutions in L.A. didn’t view Chicano art as fine art. ‘You make folk art,’ is what they characterized it as,” says Marin. “Most of the progress with most of the museums has been at the point of a gun. And I understand that it’s not that way now, but it’s still difficult.”
Marin has seen a similar not-so-subtle dynamic at play in Hollywood, which has come under fire for its lack of diversity. He broke through as half of the original two-man act, Cheech and Chong, whose 1978 Up in Smoke originated the stoner film. After several follow-up movies, Marin lit out on a steady career in TV with shows like Nash Bridges, Judging Amy and more recently Jane the Virgin. But after 40 years in the business he still gets offers to play characters named Taco Steve.
“I don’t think I’m Taco Steve at this point in my career,” he patiently says about a role he recently passed on. Other stereotypes are reinforced by figures like El Chapo, who feeds into hysteria about illegal immigration, which stands at its lowest point since 2003. “If America didn’t like drugs there would be no El Chapo,” says Marin, adding, “Mexicans, by in large, don’t even smoke marijuana or do cocaine. [though] I’m sure that’s changing a little bit because of accessibility.”
Whether or not he was including himself isn’t clear, but when it comes to a 2016 ballot measure in support of marijuana for recreational use, the original stoner comic is pro-legalization for “any purpose in any state.”
“I don’t know of any medical beer, no medical beer strains, but there are medical applications for marijuana and it is the choice intoxicant for several generations now and it is not going to go backwards.”
With or without a legal joint in his hand, Marin remains optimistic about Americans’ embrace of Latino culture, despite current voices of intolerance like Donald Trump, whom he called “the most popular pinata in LA.”
“The most American thing you can do is watch Super Bowl Sunday on your giant big screen, eating guacamole with a Corona beer,” observes Marin. “Part of the journey is acceptance that the Latino contribution is part of the mainstream.”
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