In the late '70s and early '80s, Cheech Marin's star turns in such cinematic treasures as "Up in Smoke" and "Still Smokin' " gained the actor a reputation for herbally enhanced high jinks. In recent years, though, a raft of above-board activities -- a five-season run opposite Don Johnson on TV's "Nash Bridges," the Paul Newmanesque introduction of "The Cheech" hot sauces -- suggest that the 55-year-old actor might have killed his own buzz.
Now add to this list of lofty pursuits Marin's 20-odd years spent cultivating his taste for . . . art.
How groovy, then, that Marin's own stash accounts for more than two-thirds of the 73 works in "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge," a survey of post-1960s works on view at the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building. Marin, born in south-central Los Angeles to parents of Mexican descent, proudly wears the Chicano label, adopted during the push for recognition and civil rights as a badge of pride and resistance to assimilation.
Chicano art combines the symbolism and religious allusions of the Mexican tradition with scenes of contemporary urban America. The art is also driven by strong currents of activism and pride. Many pictures boast in-your-face politics, palettes or both.
Chicano art's prickly tendencies might explain why we don't see these works too often. Despite the 1970s mobilization of Chicano artists into such collectives as the seminal "Los Four," and despite that quartet's groundbreaking group exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the mid-'70s, Chicano art remains largely absent from art museum schedules.
Marin maintains that the art world has pigeonholed Chicano works into either folk or political art categories. The actor's interest in mounting this show, in conjunction with curator Rene Yanez, was to show the movement's evolution from propagandist roots. Still, much of the work here would be a tough sell in Peoria. Such a high degree of cultural specificity doesn't always translate. Even knowing that John Valadez's pseudo-religious photorealist pastels were created during a spate of East L.A. gang violence couldn't help me digest a piece like "Revelations." In it, a couple -- he in bikini briefs, she in bra and panties -- are surrounded by a godlike man and child floating in the air as chickens cluck at their feet. The hokey religious allusions, coupled with Valadez's earnest style, didn't sit well with me.
Happily, the quality works have kitsch largely outnumbered. "Los Four" member Carlos Almaraz's early 1980s oils depicting apocalyptic car crashes are a riot of paint and color. Pieces like "Flipover" and "Sunset Crash" capture the violent tumble, sparks and flames of cars spinning out of control. Instead of turning out macabre portraits of twisted metal, Almaraz captures each crash as pure energy in explosive clouds of color. He lays the paint on thick enough to lend combustion a physical presence. His paintings are more concerned with energy transfer than destruction.
Such intense subject matter accounts for just one segment of "Chicano Visions." You've got your chicks in hot pants, your bar brawls, your happy homes, your hamburger stands. No matter what the subject, though, these works are assertive. Sometimes the palette is loud: bright red, orange, yellow and lime dominate many of these canvases. Other pictures bring politics to the forefront: Melesio Casas's "Humanscape 68 (Kitchen Spanish)," a melange of Pop and politics from 1973, juxtaposes a dark-skinned Mexican maid with the family she serves -- leaving little question as to where the artist's sympathies lie.
In his large-scale painting of the modern-day travails of Echo Park ice cream vendors, Frank Romero, too, painted his sympathies loud and proud. Cops in full riot gear draw guns on a ragtag group of vendors holding Popsicles. The Hispanic group's innocence is played to the hilt; the police are utterly demonized. While the whole scene is over the top, Romero's aim is closely allied with the tradition of Mexican muralists active in the 1920s and '30s.
One of the strongest works here, Vincent Valdez's gritty "Kill the Pachuco Bastard!," follows another grand tradition -- history painting. The 23-year-old artist depicted a bar brawl on the June night of the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles.
While the Japanese were being interned, Mexican Americans were getting razzed, too. One evening a group of sailors claiming harassment converged on Chicano hangouts citywide. Valdez's complicated canvas -- rendered in the purples and greens of a dank barroom -- captures the height of the action. Bottles and fists are flying. Grim as its violence may be, the piece marks a rallying point for remembrance.
Although I generally skip audio tours because they distract from viewing, I'm moved to endorse the Marin-narrated guide accompanying this show. An extra five bucks buys you snippets of interviews with the artists along with personal and art historical background delivered in Marin's infectious, folksy style.
Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge at the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Dr. SW, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily, through Sept. 3. Call 202-357-2700.