Sophisticated and Naive: A Conversation with Cheech Marin
By Kylie Cooper
By: Kylie Kinnett Photos by: Rachel Benavides
How did you first start collecting art?
I started educating myself in art at a very early age. At 11, I started checking books out from the library. And being raised catholic, I was always in church, and when you are a little kid you think ‘how long is this going to go on?’ while you are looking at the ceiling. There are all these paintings of guys in robes and in the clouds and you think ‘why are there arrows in that guy?’ or ‘why are they barbecuing that guy?’ Spirituality and mayhem, you know? So, I thought that was interesting and I started studying art. Very quickly after graduating high school I was fairly proficient in western art. The lack of education I had was in contemporary art, so I went out to investigate that. I started going to galleries in LA and that is how I started discovering Chicano artists. I wondered why I had never heard of them before, because they were so good. So, I started collecting them and it was a perfect storm. I knew what the art was, I had the money to collect it, and I had the celebrity in order to promote it. So, I thought ‘look out world.’
What is Chicano Art?
Chicano Art is the art of Chicano’s who consider themselves as much American as they are Mexican, with a sophisticated and defiant political attitude (which we need).
What aspects of Chicano Art speak to you?
Well, I am Chicano. But, you know, it really kind of felt like who I was. I never knew how to label myself. I grew up in neighborhoods where there weren’t very many Mexicans and so I was always ‘the Mexican’ and I always thought, ‘well I am not Mexican. I have never even been to Mexico and I don’t speak Spanish.’ I really hated those hyphenated names—you know like Mexican-American, and so finally, when I heard this term Chicano, and I found out what that meant, I knew that was me. It helped me come into my own in regard to the ascetics of my culture. It was me—it was sophisticated and naive all at the same time. Chicano Art exists on a bunch of different levels all at the same time. Sophisticated and naive all at the same time. That’s how I picture myself and so it fit perfectly for me. These artists are inspired just as much by their grandmothers as they are by impressionists, and it shows.
Why do you think Chicano Art isn’t necessarily at the forefront of the art world?
Well, it takes a push. You know, this stuff didn’t just happen overnight. The wheels of cultural acceptance grind very slowly—if they grind at all. And, everything needs a champion. Pablo Picasso needed a champion. There was nobody that was really taking Chicano Art as world-class art, but I saw it right away. I knew what a good painting was and I knew these were.
So, then how does it feel to be a champion of this art?
Way bitchin’. Really, that’s the best word I can use to describe it. But, really, it is just so fun. To see a painting by an artist I have never heard of before and be in awe by it—that is something.
How does this exhibit differ from the others you have had on display here at the Art Museum of South Texas?
This is exclusively Tejano Chicano paintings. So, every single one of the artists is from Texas and it is a different kind of thing. It’s a separate category—they cross over, but they are different. It is regional and international at the same time.
Do you have any favorite pieces in the collection?
Oh, that is like having a favorite kid. You know, whichever one is giving me the least amount of trouble at the current time.
What do you hope this exhibit does for the community here?
Exposure. I want everybody to get to see this. My mantra has been that you cannot love or hate Chicano Art unless you have seen it. Because everybody has this preconceived notion of what they think Chicano Art is in their minds, having never seen it, and then they show up to the museum and are shocked. Everyone thinks it is going to just be cacti and mariachis and that’s it. But it isn’t, it is sophisticated art and people need to see it. If people are shown it, they will accept it.