ALISON STEWART, host:
It has been a good year for Chicano art at the Los Angeles County Museum on the heels of an exhibition devoted to today's generation of Mexican-American artists. The museum is now showing the work of early Chicano painters whose images first gained attention 40 years ago and dealt with the politics and social issues affecting the Latino community at the time. The exhibit is largely culled from the collection of a familiar name best-known for something else entirely. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez of member station KPCC reports that this marks a turnaround for a city whose major institutions had virtually ignored Chicano art.
ADOLFO GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Actor Cheech Marin is best-known for his masterpieces of lowbrow with partner Tommy Chong.
(Soundbite of movie "Up In Smoke")
Mr. RICHARD "CHEECH" MARIN (As Pedro De Pacas): My cousin's get married down at TJ, man. So he calls the immigration on himself.
Mr. TOMMY CHONG (As Anthony "Man" Stoner): But why?
Mr. MARIN: (As Pedro De Pacas): So they can get a free ride, man. So they come down with a big, old bus. They take the whole wedding party down. Plus they even get fed lunch, man.
GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Twenty years before the 1978 film "Up in Smoke," a 12-year-old Cheech Marin pursued the highbrow in suburban Los Angeles.
Mr. CHEECH MARIN (Actor): I used to go into the library and take out all the art books and look at them just to familiarize myself with who was what. I - oh, that's Cezanne, that's Picasso, that's Miro, that's Kandinsky.
GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Marin, a third-generation Mexican-American, or Chicano, as he prefers to be called, has reconciled high and low, and assembled what's now considered one of the most important private collections of Chicano art in the United States.
Mr. MARIN: This is a pastel by John Valadez who's one of the seminal Chicano painters, and it's called "Getting Them Out of the Car." And it depicts the aftermath of a drive-by shooting here. It kind of looks like Venice or some place on (unintelligible) beach. And there's people going by, and there's a soul ascending.
GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Marin's collected nearly 400 works of art. He picked 35 for "Los Angelenos/Chicano Painters of L.A." at the L.A. County Museum of Art, or LACMA, as it's known. Thirty-six years ago, LACMA had no Chicano art.
Mr. HARRY GAMBOA, JR. (Writer and Artist): Here's where we turn to the scene of the art crime.
GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Writer and artist Harry Gamboa walks behind the museum's large campus and recalls an outing back in 1972. Back then, the 21-year-old Gamboa took his girlfriend to the museum. It was going well until the two reached the last gallery.
Mr. GAMBOA: I asked her to excuse me for a second. I started pounding on doors and somehow came face to face with an unnamed curator who I demanded to know why don't they have Chicano art? He turned around and he says, well, you know what, Chicanos, they don't make art. They're in gangs.
GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Gamboa left fuming. The date was over. He returned 10 hours later with two Chicano friends. In the dead of night, the three scrawled their names in red and black spray paint on the museum's entrances.
Mr. GAMBOA: I think the crime at the time was the fact that there was no Chicano art here. We basically took care of that by signing the museum and creating the museum itself into the first work of conceptual art.
GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Well, Frenchman Marcel Duchamp usually gets that credit. But Gamboa did go on to cofound the first Chicano conceptual art group, known as Asco, the Spanish word for nausea. They taped themselves to walls and called the works instant murals. They paraded in homemade carnival-like costumes after anti-Vietnam war rallies. And they inspired a new generation of Chicano artists. Some of their work was part of the recent LACMA exhibition, "Phantom Sightings."
Ms. CAROLYN CASTANO (Colombian-American Artist): This is a historic Filipino town, and it's the neighborhood that I grew up in. We used to just call it rampart, after the police station.
GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Carolyn Castano is a Colombian-American. She has her studio across the street from Fernando's Tires where somebody's hand-lettered the name of the business in crooked, black, three-foot-high characters on a canary-yellow background. It's one of dozens of homemade signs.
Ms. CASTANO: I just take walks around the neighborhood and take pictures. And then when I go back to my studio, I just - I look at different elements, like the text and the colors. And it is commercial art, but also it represents beauty to them. And it also represents, you know, something that they're very proud of, like having a business.
GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Castano's inspired by that simple beauty to create mixed-media works like the four foot by five foot tropical baby, Yandara. Simple lines portray a young woman's face, the eyes beckon, and the puffy hairdo looks detachable like a wig. Purple, red, and lime-green flowers and paisley swirl around the face. Julio Morales is also deeply rooted in his hometown neighborhood, the Zona Norte, the gritty area just across the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana. Morales created nine watercolors depicting various ways to smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States.
Mr. JULIO MORALES (Mexican-American Artist): So, for example, with this image that we're looking at right now, there's someone who's actually embedded in the dashboard of the car. So essentially they take all the guts out of the dashboard, they put the person in there, and then they reassemble it.
GUZMAN-LOPEZ: The younger artists are grateful for the recognition. Actor and art collector Cheech Marin says he's learned from his recent travels in the United States that there will be a lot more Chicano art that's worthy of museum shows.
Mr. MARIN: It's been hard fought, the recognition, but I think we're at a very good place right now, much better place. And it's the artists who had have come along, you know. They've had those 30, 40 years to develop as fine artists, and they have, you know. And then there's continuing generations of artists, not only painters, but conceptual artists, sculptors that have come along and have added to that and just keep pushing the definition and the perspective of Chicano art.
GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Marin says "Phantom Sightings" and the exhibition of established L.A. Chicano painters are important steps toward ending Chicano's phantom status. For NPR News, I'm Adolfo Guzman-Lopez in Los Angeles.
STEWART: You can see selections from Cheech Marin's art collection in a photo gallery at our Web site, npr.org.