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Cheech Marin high on art

Actor/comedian a leading collector of Mexican-American art

By Douglas Hyde

Cheech Marin


Cheech Marin
Entertainment (general)
Art Museums
Arts, Culture and Entertainment

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Say the name Cheech Marin, and what most people think of is the stoned-out character he played in the "Cheech and Chong" movies and records.

But there is far more to him than his onscreen persona suggests. Richard "Cheech" Marin is one of the nation's foremost collectors of Chicano, or Mexican-American, art, and his private collection has become the largest of its kind in the world.

Marin is sharing that art with the public through two national exhibits. The first, "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge," is in the midst of a blockbuster tour of major art museums that runs through 2008. The second, "The Chicano Collection," featuring digital reproductions of paintings in his collection, has just begun its national tour in Los Angeles.

CNN caught up with him there, and he spoke about his devotion to Chicano art and his desire to break it into the mainstream.

CNN: How did it all start for you?

CHEECH MARIN: Well, I was always interested in art. I had started art as a kid by myself and went to the library, checked out art books and familiarized myself with what was up. And when I got to the appropriate place -- actually when I made money -- I started collecting art.

In the mid-'80s I kind of discovered the Chicano painters because the gap of my knowledge was contemporary art. ... At first it was you'd buy something just to go over the couch, something in green, but the more I saw, the more I realized that they were talking about something specific and that thing was the experience of being Chicano. ... And so, being an obsessive collector -- which I've been all my life -- I started collecting their works.

CNN: Are people surprised that you have this passion for art, given that you're so well known for playing this stoner hippie in the "Cheech and Chong" comedies?

MARIN: Well, I think less and less as time goes by because they've seen me in a bunch of other stuff, you know "Nash Bridges" or "Judging Amy." ...

I always feel really fortunate and almost anointed because I was the right guy in the right place at the right time. ... These guys were great painters because I knew what a great painting was and I had the interest and the money, you know, to kind of put together a collection.

CNN: Why are you doing this?

MARIN: I would like to spread Chicano art to the mainstream and have it recognized as it should be. My theory is that this is not a Latin American phenomenon, this is a school of American art. And what it does is to symbolize the inclusion of the Latin and Latinos' cultural contribution in the mainstream that has kind of not been recognized. ...

What I learned from showbiz and my dealings with corporate America is it's all about shelf space. It's all about getting your name in front of the public. You can't love or hate Chicano art unless you see it.

CNN: What is it about Chicano art that is so unique and so special?

MARIN: It tells the story of an experience and it draws upon two cultures and has the power of those two cultures that combine and then recombine for a whole different experience. Chicano is described as Mexican meets American. It's Mexican- American, but Mexican-American with an attitude -- an attitude of insistence upon rights, an insistence upon equality and an insistence upon acknowlegement of their creativity.

It's not a census term like Hispanic or Mexican-American put on you. You choose to be a Chicano. [Originally] it was a "dis" by Mexicans to other Mexicans living in this country, the concept being that Mexicans living in [this] country were not truly Mexicanos anymore. They were something smaller. They were something littler. They were chicos [boys]. ...

I grew up being a Chicano. I didn't feel Mexican-American, I didn't feel Hispanic and I definitely wasn't the Dick-and-Jane American. But when I got to Chicano, when I heard that term I felt loved. That's me. ...

The first time I saw Chicano art, it's like the first time I heard the Beatles. It was recognizable because it was built on something I knew, but it was really new and different and refreshing and full of life. And that's kind of the way I feel about Chicano art.

CNN: Have you experienced any snobbery in the art world?

MARIN: Oh, yeah. In some institutions that will go unnamed, there was kind of an ingrained snobbery against it because they didn't know what it was. You're always kind of defensive about things that you don't know anything about and also because of me.

My participation is a double-edged sword. You know I bring a lot of publicity to it because I have fame in other areas, [but] in the art world, I was an interloper. You know, "who's this doper comedian that'll come up and tell me, who has a Ph.D. in art, what's up?" Well, here I am.

CNN: So how do you deal with that?

MARIN: You know, what we're bringing to Americans is a wonderful gift. For free. Here's the best and brightest and culmination of our creativity and pictures. We come bearing gifts, we come in peace and we come to add to the culture.

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