From the exhibit In the Séance Room, Jeremy Blake’s Spiritualized.
(2002 oil on canvas, courtesy of Kinz Fine Art)
  • From the exhibit In the Séance Room, Jeremy Blake’s Spiritualized. (2002 oil on canvas, courtesy of Kinz Fine Art)
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One of the great movie gangsters was also a smart, discriminating art collector. As Rico Bandello in Little Caesar (“Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”), Edward G. Robinson, born Emmanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest, Romania, snarled like nobody’s business and became a cool measure of movie nastiness. He also owned about a hundred pictures by Renoir, Gauguin, Degas, Van Gogh, and other moderns, including one of Cézanne’s greatest early paintings, The Black Clock. In the 1950s the National Gallery mounted a special exhibition of his collection, which he later mostly lost in a divorce. Another suspicious guy of a slicker kind, Vincent Price, was an informed collector, and after him and Rico have come Steve Martin, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, and other show business people who have built serious collections. Add to that list Cheech Marin, whose collecting habits are specialized: since the 1980s he’s been building the world’s finest private collection of Chicano art.

From the exhibit Chicanitas, Jari Werc Alvarez’s Donkey Show (2008 mixed media, from the collection of Cheech Marin)

In 2006, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego put on Chicano Visions: Painters on the Verge, a hefty exhibition of the many dimensions of Chicano art, most of the paintings on loan from Mr. Marin. Now the museum is featuring at their downtown venue a busy little exhibition, Chicanitas, made up of smallish paintings from his collection, none more than 16 inches square. In the essay he wrote to go with Chicanitas, Marin tells his foundation story. Many years ago, already schooled in art history and visiting the Rijksmuseum for the first time, he was totaled by Rembrandt’s huge boisterous picture of communal enterprise, The Night Watch, but then looked at a much smaller Vermeer and was totaled by its very different effects: “I was shocked not because it was overwhelming, but because it was just the opposite; it was small, almost miniature. Small paintings whisper to you. They tell a secret to you and you only.” You can share secrets with really big pictures, too, but his point, I think, is that we have an intenser feeling of sharing a confidence with small paintings, a confidence that bonds us to subject matter or expressive dynamics. And we feel we can make a personal claim to small paintings, they seem so portable.

I can name one in Chicanitas that I wanted to slip into my shoulder bag and take home. Margaret Garcia (b. 1951) has been making tight, condensed oil-on-panel paintings depicting scenes in her Highland Park neighborhood in Los Angeles. One of these is a five-inch-by-eight-inch eruption, Car Wash, showing a red car nosing toward us from behind a whippy sheet of creamy water with sultry blue brushes spinning overhead. It’s a car wash, sure, but framed as it is by portals and archway it’s an expression of emergence, of cleansing and coming through. And if I had enough room in my bag, I’d also do take-out with Elsa Flores Almaraz’s Nude Figure, a meaty swirl of pigment enfolding a dark-skinned female who seems to be shouldering a greenish “partner,” an aura or companioning spirit.

To judge by the origins and current work-places of most artists in Chicanitas, the real cultural borderland isn’t San Ysidro or Brownsville, it’s Los Angeles. A few were born or trained in Mexico or Texas, but the biggest noise is being made in L.A. Their themes frequently dance with identity issues, female identities in particular. Yolanda González’s elegant, close-up portraits of svelte Latina women stream straight out of classical portraiture. More complicated and loaded is Sandy Rodríguez’s self-portrait Payasa: her white clown face and lit-up smile and exposed voluptuous flesh make for a punchy, of-the-moment essay on controlled self-representation. Ana Teresa Fernández’s two paintings titled To Press are unsettling in a pinchy way: a woman whose face we can’t see, dressed in party dress and heels, assumes compromising positions on and with an ironing board. Traditional domestic female chores and the desire to make oneself desirable are ambiguously twisted together; one picture involves spanking, but that comic detail is more menacing than charming. (I won’t spoil the surprise by saying more.) John Valadez, born in 1951, the most famous and senior of the artists here, offers tonally a very different view of the feminine: his underwater images of nudes, painted on terracotta tile, are straight-out worshipful.

The museum has also put together a selection of acquisitions from the past ten years. Given the this-and-that diversity of the contents, you’d expect a show without any driving theme. But most of these works are like a conspiracy cell, each speaking to the other, and the subject of conversation is spirit-hauntings. The piece that gives the exhibition its title, Jeremy Blake’s In the Séance Room, is an ethereal multi-panel response to the story of the Winchester Mystery House. Sarah Winchester, widow of the multimillionaire who made the Winchester rifle, in the 1880s moved from Connecticut to San Jose and started construction on a house intended to host or dispel spirits of Indians killed by “the gun that won the west.” She spent 38 years building her 160-room house and held a nightly séance for spiritual (and architectural) guidance. Blake’s sinuous ropes and blooming bouquets of color, themselves haunted, intentionally, by the color-field emanations of Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler, suggest unseen presences, infiltrations, and subversions of the rational order.

The American photographer Nan Goldin got famous in the 1980s with her garishly lit images of Bowery friends and lovers and their sometimes druggy, sometimes violent lives, an ongoing autobiographical record she titled The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Her work, which is mostly about secrets and exposures, has a dark, gutterscape beauty and bleak candor. The museum recently acquired a photo she made of a rack of candles in Fátima, Portugal, that’s a vaguely mournful rebuke to every hope-will-survive cliché. These long candles look like broken, sweating, exhausted creatures. The image testifies to frailty, fatigue, time’s erosions, and wilted aspiration. It makes for a gorgeously desolate image.

And close to it is one of Christian Boltanski’s dim shrines to the passing of anonymous children. Boltanski (b. 1944) started out as a painter, sculptor, and photographer, but in the 1980s he began making installations that involved light bulbs, wires, small tin boxes, and soft-focus photos, taken from yearbooks or school archives, of Jewish schoolchildren: they didn’t articulate Holocaust anecdotes, but the weighty suggestion of mass perdition in Boltanski’s work spoke to the magnitude and murderous anonymity of the camps. (For the record, Boltanski once said: “My work is about the fact of dying, but it’s not about the Holocaust itself.”) The museum’s 1987 piece, Monument, is a pyramid of red bricks (photographs, actually) edged with steely blue rails and piped with feeble light bulbs. At its apex is an out-of-focus photo of a schoolchild. Wires trail from the lights like weepings.

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