‘The Cheech,’ Chicano Art, and Artistic Recognition

‘The Cheech,’ Chicano Art, and Artistic Recognition

September 29, 2020

What does the term Chicano/a mean? What exactly constitutes Chicano Art? And does Chicano art belong in mainstream museums? All these questions are central toThe Cheech, a documentary film produced and directed by Edward Tyndall, MFA, assistant professor at CU Denver’s College of Arts & Media.

Tyndall connected with actor Cheech Marin during the exhibition Los Tejanos: Chicano Art from the Cheech Marin Collection, which opened at the Art Museum of South Texas in early 2018. While the comedic actor is most known for his Cheech & Chong stand-up routines and movies, Marin is also an avid art collector. As the owner of more than 700 works of Chicano art, Marin holds the greatest collection of Chicano art in the world. In 2017, he was recognized by Art News in its top 200 art collectors list.

From Folk Art to Fine Art

Tyndall’s 25-minute documentary explores Marin as a collector and pioneer in the Chicano art movement. “For a long time, the fine arts community rejected Chicano art as fine art,” Tyndall said. “They saw it as politically motivated folk art,” he added.

The Cheech lets The Cheech speak for himself. The interview-driven documentary gives Marin the space to discuss the implications of the term Chicano and Chicano art. Far from the marijuana-smoking hippie character that made him famous, Marin speaks eloquently about this subject: “Chicano was a voluntary category. You have to proclaim yourself a Chicano in order to be a Chicano. There’s no box on the census that you can check that says Chicano. None. But you can get a PhD in Chicano Studies from Harvard University. So what is the message? We exist; we don’t exist.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary,  Chicano refers to “an American whose parents or grandparents came from Mexico.” The salient difference between Chicano and Mexican-American is one of cultural empowerment. Chicano is a self-identification, as opposed to Mexican-American, which can be viewed as an imposed racial or assimilationist category. This makes the word Chicano a form of resistance. “As a voluntary category, you can make up your own rules,” Marin explains. These “rules” extend to the Chicano art genre.

An excerpt of the film The Cheech, directed by Professor Edward Tyndall

All Chicano Art is Political

In other words, Chicano art is not a fixed aesthetic movement. Quintin Gonzalez, MFA, associate professor in the Visual Arts Department at CU Denver, offers his own definition, which comes from his role as an artist as opposed to an art historian. “If it’s made by a Chicano, it’s Chicano art,” he said.

Both Gonzalez and Marin agree there are some underlying themes in Chicano art. “All Chicano art at the beginning was political art—and very defiant political art,” Marin says in The Cheech. “It [Chicano art] celebrates Chicano culture, yet at the same time it doesn’t shy away from addressing social ills,” Gonzalez said.

Portrait of César Chávez in Heaven
Portrait of César Chávez in Heaven by Professor Quintin Gonzalez

Gonzalez considered himself to be a Chicano artist when he was younger. His family on both sides came from Mexico, and his paternal grandmother’s family “had been in Texas back when Texas was Mexico.“ Although he’s now more comfortable with the term Latinx artist, Gonzalez does explore issues that might be associated with Chicano art, such as immigration, religion, and cultural acceptance. His digital painting titled Portrait of César Chávez in Heaven, for example, “is very in tune with what people perceive as Chicano art,” he said. It depicts the Latino American rights activist and labor leader with a halo reminiscent of Catholic iconography.

Gonzalez, however, does not want to be limited by the term Chicano art. “While it can be very informative and didactic and have a very specific message, at the same time it’s open enough to allow the artist to communicate things intrinsically,” he said, pointing out that there are Chicano artists working in expressionism, abstraction, and conceptual art.

portrait of Ilhan Omar
Of Tranquil Courage: Portrait of Ilhan Omar by Professor Quintin Gonzalez

Gonzalez also thinks the Chicano experience can be applied to other cultures. In his work titled Of Tranquil Courage: Portrait of Ilham Omar, he depicts the U.S. Representative, who is a Somali-American Muslim, in front of an American flag. “Chicanos understand, on an emotional level, what it’s like to be an immigrant,” he said. “The life of immigrancy is something we see, something I believe the Latinx community in general has an empathy for,” he added.

Intersectionality and Fusion

Some viewers might not classify Gonzalez’ portrait of Omar as Chicano art. In The Cheech, however, Marin makes a case for a broader definition of the genre. Marin discusses how Chicano artists can’t—and shouldn’t—be easily classified. “You’re not going to get great art out of artists that you confine to a category,” Marin says.

The intersectionality of disciplines is particularly interesting in The Cheech. Tyndall filmed Marin at the Art Museum of South Texas, so the Chicano art in consistently on view. It is a documentary about a movie icon discussing fine art and museum studies. Grammy-nominated musician El Dusty, known for mixing musical genres, wrote the score for The Cheech, adding yet another layer of artistic fusion.

This amalgamation of multiple genres may partly explain Tyndall’s interest in his film’s subject. It is also one reason he was drawn to CU Denver. “One of the great things here is the support for interdisciplinary connection,” he said. “The dean here [Laurence Kaptain] is promoting cross-pollination in the arts,” he added.

“Chicano art is a school of American art, and it should be recognized as such.”

– Edward Tyndall, professor of film at CU Denver

Filmmaker Tyndall admits he knew very little about Chicano art, but he got an education from Marin as he made the film. “The main focus of the documentary is that Chicano art is a school of American art, and it should be recognized as such,” Tyndall said. How can Chicano art be recognized? Through mainstream acceptance. “Museums are the final imprimatur of cultural acceptance,” Marin says.

In the documentary, Marin explains why he owns so much Chicano art. “I have this collection because you don’t,” he says. In 2021, he will no longer be able to give this answer, because his collection will become the foundation for the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture, & Industry—the first museum in the world dedicated exclusively to Chicano art. The museum, a gift from the Riverside Art Museum, will be known as “The Cheech.”

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