RIVERSIDE, CA — “This is the nuclear weapon we have always needed,” said artist Judithe Hernández on June 17 at the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in Riverside. She was part of a multi-generational group of Chicano/a artists who had gathered at “The Cheech,” as it is known, for a preview of the new museum dedicated to celebrating their work, a day before its official public opening.
The Cheech showcases the collection of comedian and actor Cheech Marin, who began collecting Chicano art in the mid-1980s and currently owns around 700 works, “believed to be the largest such collection in the world,” according to the New York Times. The Cheech is not the only museum to focus on Chicano or Latino art, but it stands out for its scope, taking a wide view both chronologically and geographically. Although these terms are hotly debated, “Chicano” generally applies to people of Mexican origin who were born in the United States, while “Latino” signifies those with roots in Latin America. (Around LA, there is the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, which only recently began showing art by Latino artists from the US in addition to those from Latin America, and LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, which explores Latinidad with a special focus on the Mexican-American experience in Los Angeles.) The museum’s 61,420 square feet are divided between collections-based exhibitions on the ground floor and upstairs galleries for temporary shows.
According to a 2019 Williams College Study, only 2.8% of artists in major US museum collections are Latino, making the need for such a museum clear. But the question remains, why?
“There has been a hesitancy on the part of the art establishment to recognize Chicano art as fine art,” Marin said over a Zoom call last week. “Some artists were told very early that Chicanos don’t make fine art, they make agitprop folk art. All the artists who I’ve ever told that to say, ‘what’s agitprop folk art? That’s not what I make. They must be thinking of some other Chicanos.’”
At the artist’s preview on Friday, artist and cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz spoke about deeply entrenched systemic issues throughout the art world. “For so many things that we’re underrepresented in, there’s no pipeline. In Hollywood, they don’t recruit in our communities. At art institutions, it’s the same thing. They don’t consider our homegrown talent. It’s undeniable here that we have the talent,” he said, gesturing at the paintings surrounding him. “I hope this is a big wake-up call for [museums]. I’m sure they’ll be the first ones asking, ‘Can we borrow some pieces for a show?’”
The need was clear, but the question of demand was answered with the 2017 touring exhibition, Papel Chicano Dos: Works on Paper From the Collection of Cheech Marin, which broke attendance records when it came to the Riverside Art Museum (RAM). That year, Todd Wingate, curator of exhibitions and collections at the Riverside Art Museum and former Riverside city manager John Russo suggested that Marin found a museum around his collection. In exchange for donating 500 works from his collection to the RAM, the city would fund moving it to the old Riverside public library, a 1964 modernist building that is now The Cheech. The museum is a public-private partnership between Marin and RAM, which will manage the museum, and the City of Riverside, which will support the museum with a $1-million a year operating budget for 25 years. Last year, María Esther Fernández was tapped to be the artistic director of The Cheech.
Marin’s vision for The Cheech goes beyond simply showcasing his collection. He has plans for a low-budget film program led by director Robert Rodriguez, who made his first film “El Mariachi” (1992) for only $7000, as well as an academic program of talks and fellowships. He also hopes to create artists’ studios by repurposing large citrus packing houses, holdovers from the late 19th century when Riverside was the center of the US citrus industry and the richest per capita city in the country. Marin imagines the museum as but one part of an artistic nexus transforming Riverside into a vibrant cultural hub. Call it “the Cheech effect.”
The inaugural collection show Cheech Collects features more than 100 works, highlighting both foundational Chicano artists and a younger generation who build on their legacies. Members of the influential collective Los Four — Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, Gilbert “Magu” Luján, Beto de la Rocha, and Judithe Hernández — are well represented, depicting scenes of Chicano/a life in bright colors and expressionistic strokes. Almaraz’s fiery highway crash scenes and Romero’s “Arrest of the Paleteros” (1996) — depicting police harassment of street vendors, a frustratingly timely issue — reflect urban realities. Hernández’s “Juárez Quinceañera” (2017) is a haunting image memorializing murdered women in the border town. She will be the subject of the museum’s first retrospective exhibition opening early next year.
Works by Patssi Valdez and Gronk, members of ASCO, another seminal but quite different Chicano art collective, are also on view: a surreal, symbolic interior of a room by Valdez, and a large-scale theatrical painting by Gronk featuring La Tormenta, a recurring character in his work. Interestingly, they are represented with paintings, not the more avant-garde performances of their ASCO period. Painting is the predominant medium throughout the show, so it remains to be seen if upcoming collection exhibitions, the second of which opens next year, will feature a more diverse range of media.
A typical afternoon meal in rural Mexico is rendered in electric blues and oranges in “Un Tarde en Meoqui” (1991) by Wayne Alaniz Healy, founder of the East Los Streetscapers collective, influential practitioners of muralism, an important element of the Chicano Art Movement. Vincent Valdez’s epic history painting “Kill the Pachuco Bastard!” (1991) chronicles the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, where Latino youths wearing flashy “zoot suits” were attacked by US sailors in downtown LA. Chicano graffiti godfather Chaz Bojorquez is represented with a mid-career work “Chino Latino” (2000), a boisterous explosion of black and white on red that depicts a snarling dragon.
The themes this first generation explores — urban and rural Chicano life, Aztec and Mayan symbols, social justice, car culture, graffiti, hybridity — are picked up by younger artists, who engage with them in new ways. Jari Álvarez and Candelario Aguilar, Jr. remix images from cartoons, graffiti, signage, tattoo culture, and the urban environment into evocative tableaux. Jaime GERMS Zacarias’s diptych “La Batalla” (2013) is a visually frantic battle between his signature luchador masks, from which sprout tangles of tentacles.
Cheech Collects extends from LA to Texas, another epicenter of Chicano culture, highlighting artists who may not be as well known here. “La Sad Girl” (2003) by the late San Antonio-based artist Adán Hernández depicts the titular black-clad, raven-haired woman with a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, surrounded by symbols of Chicano culture. A police raid can be seen through the open window behind her. It is Chicano Noir with a touch of New Wave sheen. César A. Martínez’s stylized portraits depict individuals but also various Chicano identities, reflecting the diversity within the community from the heavily coiffed “Sylvia with Chango’s Letter Jacket” (2000) to “Bato con Sunglasses” (2000), a nattily dressed man with a soul patch and large green sunglasses.
All these various representations of Chicano art may leave one searching for a definition of Chicano art.
“It started as the visual arm of a political movement, to demand more rights for Latinos,” explained Marin. “The artists were the sign painters for the demonstrations, and [Chicano theater company] Teatro Campesino. They evolved into their own specific art concerns that didn’t necessarily have to do with politics, but did have to do with Chicano community.”
However, the first temporary show at the museum, Collidoscope: de la Torre Brothers Retro-Perspective, complicates this identity, showcasing the work of two artists born in Guadalajara but raised in the US. The show covers thirty years of work ranging from glassblowing to lenticular images that shift as you move in front of them to assemblages that collect material culture from both sides of the border. They incorporate pre-Columbian imagery, Catholic symbols, and the detritus of daily life, reflecting their own binational experience in vibrant, complex, often humorous constructions. The exhibition was produced in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino, for which four potential permanent sites were just announced.
Selene Preciado, the curator of Collidoscope, says the exhibition fits in perfectly at the Cheech, presenting an expansive idea of Chicano identity. She has a similar background as the de la Torre brothers, having grown up in Tijuana, crossing the border daily for school, and now living in Southern California. “I’m 100% Mexican and 100% American. I am not half and half. Depending on the context I’m Latina or Latin American or Chicana. I’m all those things at the same time. The de la Torre brothers approach identity in the same way. They also come from the same place. Their work tries to tell that story, that identity is fluid. It’s very important that the work is in a Chicano museum … It feels right. There’s not one way to look at Chicano identity. We have to expand our understanding of it.”
For Marin, The Cheech is a site for further explorations of evolving Chicano identity and how the legacies of the past inform the present and future. But first, the work must be seen, and the museum is an important step in securing that representation and visibility.
“My mantra was always that you can’t love or hate Chicano art unless you see it,” he says. “My journey was to get as many people as I could to see Chicano art. Always, their reaction was, ‘I didn’t know what Chicano art was, but I like this!’ You can’t make a decision in the void.”