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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Chicanitas: Small Paintings With Power

“It is what is inside the frame that counts,” said Cheech Marin. Culled from his extensive collection of Chicano Art, considered among the finest in the United States, Chicanitas: Small Paintings from the Cheech Marin Collection, with the witty subtitle “size doesn’t matter,” showcases diminutive pieces. No single work is larger than 16 inches by 16 inches. Totaling 65 paintings by 26 artists, what could be a confining constriction, working small, hasn’t put a damper on imagination.

More popularly known for his work as half of the successful comedy team of Cheech and Chong–the duo is currently on tour–as well as being an actor and director, Marin has also taken the role of art collector. “It is an addiction,” said Marin, contemplating the process that permitted him to build a collection that would serve as the material for Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge. During its 12-city run from 2001 to 2007, Marin mentioned that the touring exhibition broke attendance records, with almost one million attending the show at the Smithsonian.

While the Mesa Contemporary Arts does not have the advantage of colossal-scale work or a sweeping historical overview, it does have the edge when it comes to the quality. Covering a wide spectrum of styles, the one unifying factor among the diversity is that the selected pieces are vibrant, bold and show a comprehensive understanding of how to handle paint. The element of refinement is evident in the works and speaks to common ground most of these artists share. Marin pointed out that most of the artists selected for this exhibition were university trained.

Eloy Torrez, whose work was included in the Chicano Visions exhibition, provides ample proof that he can handle portraiture that also grasps the psychological state of his subjects. His thought-provoking, yet highly accessible paintings recall the technical mastery of the painting medium of the neoclassical period of European art blended with a contemporary aesthetic that is linked to a specific cultural identity that has no difficulty in looking to the past as a source of inspiration. While any competent artist can create a likeness, Torrez moves beyond that in “Keinezukunft” (from the German meaning “no future”). This 12-inch by 8-inch oil on metal painting shows a young man looking directly at the viewer in a way that is confrontational, tragic and even proud. The complex contradictory emotions conveyed in this single work speaks volumes about the current times: alienation, culture, racial identity, society, economics and equity in such an elegant package that it becomes an explosion of power restrained exclusively by skill and discipline. It is an arresting work.

If there is an artist here who looks like the heir to the post-impressionists, or perhaps the impressionists, it has to be Vincent Valdez. His oil on canvas triptych “Downtown L.A.” takes a night scene of the city and transforms it into an almost abstract world of light set against a deep hue of night. With a smoldering fire in the far left panel, the tranquility–even beauty–of a night scene is not marred by the fire, which becomes an electrifying element in a carefully composed world. Not since James Mc Neill Whistler, whose “ Nocturn in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” has a night scene been this entrancing.

Not all in this assembly is serious, however. Providing a lighter touch, Ricardo Ruiz’s “La Envidiosa “ (from Spanish meaning “Envious”) is humorous, but with a cutting, sly edge. Showing a stylized female face, complete with heavy-handed makeup and an elaborate coiffure, floating near her ears are two entities, one a devil in a red suit and the other a winged angel. With our heroine caught, literally, between good and evil, there is a certain ambiguity about the moral dilemma depicted that offers both the profane and the reverential.

Ana Teresa Fernandez “To Press” oil-on-canvas painting provides a provocative image that is elusive and charged. Showing a woman slumped over an ironing board dressed and posed in a somewhat suggestive manner, this is one of the most enigmatic images in the show. It is also the most inscrutable. Thanks to her mastery of painting, the work can be appreciated on a technical level. As to the meaning, there are hints, but they are ambiguous at best, which could be the point. Either way, the work feels like part of a much larger statement with clues everywhere, but none confirmed. Her works are strong and provide yet another layer of depth to a show with so many levels being openly, sometimes covertly, exploited and explored.

“Art is multifaceted,” said Marin, and his collection proves Chicano art is no exception. When he added that artists are “the most sensible ambassadors of change,” it takes on new resonance, particularly in a curated collection that speaks both directly and indirectly to social shifts. Also interesting is that Marin became more than a collector of images, he became a connoisseur. “If I had advice, the first thing is books,” said Marin. Over time he researched artists, with particular attention to Goya, Velazquez and Vermeer, who painted on a smaller scale.

“Small paintings are the paintings they kept for the rest of their lives,” said Marin, talking about the paintings that many collectors and artists kept for themselves. As an advocate for Chicano art and collecting, an accessible and affordable way to collect is by starting small. And considering the current economic climate, scaling back is a way to obtain art without breaking the proverbial bank.

Even if art becomes smaller in scale, one thing that is not shrinking is the talent. As this show makes clear, American talent is not diminishing and for Marin, locating talent is not a problem. “They find me. I am a well-known target,” he joked.

As a preserver of culture, Marin is keenly aware of the importance of exhibitions like this, and the importance of viewing Chicano Art as American Art. The visual arts are a legacy and this is a point not lost on Cheech Marin. “Art is the only thing we leave behind.”

Chicanitas: small paintings from the Cheech Marin Collection

(size doesn’t matter)

Runs through July 31 2011

Location: Mesa Contemporary Arts at Mesa Arts Center

One East Main Street, Mesa , Arizona 85211

Phone: 480-644-6560



Tues, Wed, Fri and Sat: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Thursday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Sun: Noon to 5 p.m.

Admission $ 3.50, Free for Children age 7 and under

Free Admission on Thursdays


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