Chicano art pioneer Frank Romero is still painting, still loves cars and still defends ugly palm trees

From the outside, the red warehouse on West Avenue 34 in Lincoln Heights looks like every other industrial building on the block — the sort of place that might deliver drilling and clanging. But slip past the front door and you are greeted by a wonderland of art.

Bright canvases are arrayed around the space in various stages of completion. Ceramic dog creatures peer out from vitrines. A neon sign dangles from the rafters, illuminating the words “Car Radio” and a stylized bolt of lightning — a ray of energy that seems to infuse the room with a crackle.

Sitting amid the clutter is painter Frank Romero, head covered by a luminous mane of white hair, working his way through a burrito from Chano’s.

“You have to try the Loco Burrito,” he advises me, as he cradles a swaddle of tortilla filled with beans and salsa. “It’s stuffed with a whole chile relleno.”

Romero is known for capturing expressive scenes of Southern California in his paintings: Looping freeways, historic architecture and streams of automobiles — the latter most famously rendered in a mural on the 101 Freeway in downtown L.A. He is the subject of a sprawling spring retrospective at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach.

“Dreamland,” as the show is called, brings together more than 200 works from throughout his career — including the socially and politically minded works for which he is renowned. Among these, the 1996 canvas, “The Arrest of the Paleteros,” which was inspired by police crackdowns on street vending — and now belongs to actor and comedian Cheech Marin, a collector of Chicano art.

“That’s only about 10% of what I’ve done,” Romero says of the show. “It was an impossible task.”

Born and raised in Boyle Heights, the artist has had a brush in hand from the youngest age. As a kid, he copied storybook art. In his teens, he attended a summer program at the Otis College of Art and Design, where he got to check out exhibitions by the likes of influential ceramicists John Mason and Henry Takemoto.

In the late 1950s, he enrolled at Cal State L.A. and became friends with the then-budding artist Carlos Almaraz — an encounter that would ultimately change the course of his life. With Almaraz, along with fellow Mexican American artists Beto de la Rocha and Gilbert Lujan, he formed the collective Los Four in the 1970s. In 1974, they became the first Chicano artists to have their work displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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Chris Alexakis