Creating a sense of culture

The Weisman hosts an extensive collection of Chicano art

by Greg Corradini

Cheech Marin drifted into U.S. popular culture smoking Doberman poop in the 1978 movie, “Up in Smoke.”

It might be a surprise for some, then, that Marin is the nation’s largest collector of Chicano (Mexican-American) art and an advocate for an island of artists stranded between two cultures.

“Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge” offers a trove of poignant Chicano paintings, most plucked directly from Marin’s personal collection.

The art traverses a universe of Catholic religious devotion and Aztec mythology. Pop culture fuses with the labor politics and the street activism of the 1960s Mexican-American civil-rights movement.

Police arrest unsuspecting street vendors in some paintings. Gang bangers shoot guns out of tinted windows in others. Low riders, skeletons and the Virgin Mary collide in this realm to establish a grand Chicano identity.

Artists such as Vincent Valdez, the youngest painter in the exhibition, reach into the vaults of Chicano history to re-emphasize the discrimination that many have forgotten.

“Kill the Pachuco Bastard!” depicts the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 Los Angeles, in which racial paranoia fueled a weeklong brawl between U.S. servicemen and the well-dressed Mexican-American youth of East Los Angeles.

In Valdez’s painting, the characters are grotesque green monsters clawing the faces off of each other. Prejudice seems to have transformed everyone in the picture into the walking dead.

Elsewhere, the political allegiances are more overt.

Carmen Lomas Garza depicts the unwritten laws of class in “Heaven and Hell II.” While young couples dance, sing and eat in a flowery world, below them workers labor away in chains.

In “Chicano Visions,” pop culture and the political join forces in a way that are bound to solidify a Chicano presence in the art community.

But don’t expect that Chicano presence and identity to always remain the same.

“Chicano is an ongoing definition because it is an ongoing community. (The artists) have the right to say what their own definition is. I’m in a perfect position to help and motivate them,” Marin said in a press conference.