LARAMIE — Cheech Marin is taking on the art-world establishment with a little help from the University of Wyoming.
The actor-comedian, best known for his drug-laced comedy films with Tommy Chong, loaned the school a collection of paintings created by 26 Chicano artists that will be on display from today through Nov. 23.
As a Chicano studies scholar with the world’s largest collection of Chicano art, Marin is the nation’s preeminent voice advocating for the work of Latino artists who have been neglected by the art-world institutions in New York, Paris and Berlin.
Marin has been on a crusade during the past decade to explain the history of Chicanos in America and the nature of their work in the art world.
The word Chicano was originally an invective about Mexican immigrants who moved to the United States in the first half of the 20th century.
But as the Civil Rights movement emerged in the 1960s, the term Chicano became less of a slur and more of a term that unified Mexican immigrants and American citizens with Latino roots who fought for equal pay and better working conditions.
The word become embedded in the language of Latino communities and evolved as a term of endearment.
Born in Los Angeles, Marin grew up being called Mexican by black children in his neighborhood. The insults perplexed the young Marin.
“I would say, ‘I’m not Mexican. I’ve never even been to Mexico,’” he told a crowd of people at the UW Art Museum during a media conference on Friday.
The emergence of the Chicano art world is similar to its etymology in language. When Chicanos began painting and using other mediums to convey socioeconomic strife, everyday life and political tensions in their own neighborhoods, the highbrow art scene derided the works as unworthy of standing next to painters who had more European influence in their work.
But supporters like Marin and Chicano studies programs at Harvard, UW and other institutions of higher learning throughout the nation have helped to strengthen the growing Chicano art scene.
Despite having a doctorate in Chicano studies, Marin said many art custodians outside academia didn’t consider him credible. Marin said he butted heads with art curators when his first gallery tour thrust Chicano art — and an actor best known for his portrayal of a stoner — in their faces.
“I understand where they were coming from,” he said. “They were like, ‘Who is this dopey comedian to tell us about Chicano art?’”
More important than positioning the Chicano works as something done by Latinos, the focus of his exhibits is to showcase the pieces as American art, Marin said.
Views on art and race in the American psyche don’t change overnight. They ebb and flow like the tide, leaving a little more on the beach day by day, he said.
“When I was a kid, nobody who looked like me was hanging on walls in museums,” he said. “Now the kids in the Latino community can go all around the nation to see people like them hanging on the walls.”
Before Marin and other scholars helped to provide a larger platform for Chicano art, artists were infused with a mistrust of outsiders trying to buy their work after years of rejection, Marin said.
“Old Chicano artists are like abused children,” he said. “They always feel like they’ll be taken advantage of.”
Marin offered them thousands of dollars for their works.
They questioned his motives.
“They would ask, ‘What’s in it for you?’” he said. “I would say, ‘Absolutely nothing.’”
The works from Marin’s collection on the walls at UW are varied in their materials, concepts and form — even though each carries pastiches of Latino ancestry. Pieces by 26 artists are showcased in the exhibition.
Two paintings by Ana Teresa Fernandez show a woman in high heels, low-cut shorts and a spaghetti-strap shirt contorting her body on top of an ironing board — a look at an isolated, erotic woman confined to the domestic world.
A painting by Margaret Garcia titled “Buzz Cut” combines a post-impressionist painting style with an everyday view of a young child getting his hair trimmed by a barber.
The materials used in the works are not static. They range from cut paper, oil paints and various mixed media, said UW Art Museum Director and Chief Curator Susan Moldenhauer.
The breadth and use of the materials and methods offer another opportunity to talk about Chicano culture, she said. She’s been curating the museum since 1991 and hadn’t had an exhibit of Chicano work in her time.
If it weren’t for Moldenhauer, the exhibition might not be taking place. When she heard Marin speak at an event in Wyoming, Moldenhauer told him she wanted to exhibit his collection.
“This is long overdue,” she said.