Saturday was a momentous day for art history in Southern California. On June 18, the Riverside Art Museum opened its Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture in a beautifully renovated 61,000 square foot former library building downtown. No other museum features a substantive permanent exhibit focused on a crucial facet of the region’s rich post-war art history, which is the foundation on which Los Angeles became a cultural capital of the world during the last generation.
Not Light and Space art, which developed from the perceptually sharp and geometric Hard Edge painting of the 1950s into the first distinctive movement to emerge from LA
Not Assemblage, which brought together the anti-establishment ethos of the 1950s counterculture with the rise of the civil rights and black arts movements to create a way of working with found objects and salvaged materials still important in the art today.
Not feminist art, pioneered in outposts like CalArts and the Woman’s Building and quickly plugged into equal rights programs pursued by artists of all genres internationally.
No…well, you get the idea. Southern California museums have outstanding individual collections in these and other vital genres, including Chicano art, and some even have significant holdings in one or more of them. But nowhere can one go to see these histories of art permanently displayed in any depth for public scrutiny. Instead, we get a little of this, a little of that – useful if insufficient.
The Cheech, as the Riverside establishment has inevitably been nicknamed, given its famous origin in the art collection amassed over 30 years and donated by comedian-actor Cheech Marin, is a first. Chicano art is offered in focus – earnest, playful, and in a wide range of visual vocabularies, some more successful than others, all worth considering.
The two-story library building dating from 1964 stands across from the legendary Mission Inn, the nation’s tallest Mission Revival-style building. The contrasting Midcentury Modern library, set back from the street across a shaded lawn, has been reconfigured and renovated by Kulapat Yantrasast and WHY Architecture, in collaboration with preservation firm Page & Turnbull. The community base of Chicano art is recognized by a gallery located just inside the front door.
The ground floor houses galleries for a permanent collection which currently has over 550 works, mostly paintings and drawings. (The inaugural exhibition features 94.) Artists include such established figures as Carlos Almaraz, Glugio “Gronk” Nicandro, Frank Romero, John M. Valadez, and Patssi Valdez. There are also some lovely surprises, including sultry little oil paintings of nocturnal neighborhood food stalls, glowing like modest havens of subsistence in the inky black darkness of midnight, by Joe Peña, an artist texan new to me.
Upstairs are offices, an educational center, an auditorium and galleries for temporary exhibitions. Currently, “Collidoscope” is an investigation into the loud pop sculptures of Guadalajara-born brothers Einar and Jamex De La Torre, who divide their time between studios in San Diego and Baja California. (A two-story vertical mural by the brothers is permanently installed in the building’s light-filled atrium.) Emblematic is a witty installation centered on a large Olmec head that the De La Torres fused with a lunar landing module, dreaming slyly of the misty sky. ancient origins of Mesoamerican society and contemporary “extraterrestrial life”. (The lander’s stabilizing legs are gold hubcaps.) Their elaborate fusions of traditional blown-glass carvings, gift-shop lenticular optics, and noisy folk imagery might be called frenzied baroque.
The revamped library building generally works well for museum galleries, with one caveat: lighting is an issue. Suspended ceilings have been removed and exposed ductwork has been painted an attractive light grey. But track lighting is limited in the possibilities of its placement, and hot spots rather than evenly light-washed walls are a distraction. The lighting needs work.
María Esther Fernández, artistic director of the Cheech, oversaw the installation of the permanent collection in clever, loosely themed groupings.
Cityscapes feature prominently in the first room, subtly situating Chicano cultural expression as a largely urban phenomenon. The Chicano civil rights movement grew out of the famous 1965 grape strike in California’s rural Central Valley, where Mexican migrants joined forces with protesting Filipino workers, but artists congregated in the cities. The piece is anchored by Romero’s monumental “The Arrest of the Paleteros” in 1996, in which police entered Los Angeles’ Echo Park to arrest women, men and children caught tasting lollipops. ice creams from apparently unlicensed street vendors. The absurdity of the histrionic (and dangerous) scene, which is compressed into a lower third of the canvas, is heightened by the beautiful painterly lavishness of the palm-fringed lake that fills the rest of the image.
A transition between plays begins with Almaraz’s flowery “Sunset Crash” in 1982, an iconic image of flaming automobiles tumbling through the sky like asteroids after rolling down a stacked freeway overpass, like the one in downtown Los Angeles which separates the historically Latino-centric Eastside from the city. on its more Anglo-Western side. Tableaux of history born of frankly violent oppression unfold, followed by galleries of portraits (including that of Marin by Eloy Torrez), lyrical surrealism and dreams tinged with graffiti. None of these thematic rooms are strictly defined, wisely avoiding narrow classifications.
This is important because it keeps a definition of Chicano art open – more of a question than an answer. What is Chicano art, anyway? Is it essentialist, characterized by the ethnicity of the artist? Or socially constructed, identifiable by subject? Determined by political affiliation? By the intersection of each of them?
What about chicano abstraction? Is such a thing possible?
The closest here, in an otherwise entirely figurative art installation, is “El Verde,” a wonderfully composed recent painting by self-taught Texas artist Candelario Aguilar Jr. More than one side, emerging from a swarm of gestural colors densely superimposed on five panels, is a ghostly apparition of a wrestler that evokes the legendary El Veneno Verde — the Green Poison, a luchador. It’s as if a cultural hero had practically been squeezed out of a tube of Aguilar’s paint.
The first installment of the permanent collection, titled “Cheech Collects”, marks the beginning of a shift from private taste to public history. Marin’s personal collection has traveled extensively, including an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but it could not escape the limitation of simply promoting one person’s enthusiasm – a pitfall for any collection. private encounter in an art history setting. Marin’s tastes, for example, have largely centered on LA painting since the 1980s, mostly by men, while Chicano art has a broader scope. Its collection is a formidable core for the museum, but growth and diversification are essential. In the years to come, “Cheech Collects” will have to evolve into “The Cheech Collects”, moving from the private to the institutional and immersing itself in a vast research on the history of Chicano art.
There is work to do. A welcome sign that this is already happening is the inclusion of two large, haunting pastels by Chicana feminist artist Judithe Hernández, a former member of the 1970s Chicano collective Los Four. Hernández is slated for a retrospective at the museum next year, and the two pastels — one a seven-foot-wide diptych — are from her ongoing series of poetic meditations on the unsolved kidnappings of women working in the maquiladoras around the Mexican border town of Juárez. According to the labels of the works, they are recent acquisitions of the museum.
More of this will surely happen. The Chicano generation of artists and activists that emerged in the late 1960s knew that empowerment requires historical knowledge. The same goes for art, which spreads and adapts from other arts. A systematic study of usable and relevant Chicano art history is currently underway at Riverside.
Where: Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture at the Riverside Art Museum, 3581 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside
When: Monday to Sunday: 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. See website for exceptions.
Contact: (951) 684-7111, riversideartmuseum.org