My American Dream: City of Angels
Cheech & Chong, 2023 Oil on linen 48 × 64 inches
Cheech & Chong, 2023
Oil on linen 48 × 64 inches

When I was a kid growing up in the 70’s (I was born in 1966, am 58 now), I (and most of my friends!) was obsessed with Cheech & Chong, the famous comedy duo known for their irreverent, bohemian, and although ostensibly not PC to today’s standards—but in other ways very PC outrageous comedy.  I had all the records, which I loved playing and listening to by myself and with my friends and went to all the movies—I truly can say, culturally speaking, that I grew up with Cheech & Chong (although I was too young probably for some of the humor!) and that they affected my life, in deep, intrinsic ways.

I got to meet Cheech in 2016 when I began teaching at USC Roski, where I am a tenured, full time Professor of Art (and also keep real for popular culture by teaching Comics and I began a Visual Narrative Art program) through Roski board member Homeira Goldstein, who helped bring Cheech’s collection to the Manhattan Beach Art Center in 2016, when Andrew Madrid, my husband (who is Latino—we’ve been together now for almost 34 years!) went to the opening and to the reception at Homeira’s house.  I mentioned to Cheech at the party, that while obviously not gay, that Cheech & Chong influenced and changed my life, as their records and movies that celebrated their brotherhood, which Cheech seemed to appreciate (I also recited to him, by ancient memory now from when I was a kid, one of his routines, which he also appreciated, eyes partially rolled!).  Tommy Chong, while not exactly Caucasian—his father is Chinese, his mom a Canadian of Irish/Scottish origin—lived, as an adult, with this fantastic Latino super confident and funny man, and they had a blast being roommates, doing all their activities and antics together, a true bromance in every way.  I truly believe this set a model for myself—while “drugs are bad” and I hope that my life with Andrew isn’t as subproletariat as theirs, in the sense that these were two men who loved each other and were “free”, thumbing their nose at conventional and conservative society, living the life they chose to live with liberty, happiness, and justice for all set the tone for what became my life, living with my wonderful Latino husband, currently in Riverside, CA (very near Andrew’s family—but also Cheech’s museum of Latino/Chicano art, “The Cheech”!).   I was also so happy to see Cheech again in 2017—I was a professor sitting behind him with the rest of the Roski faculty as Cheech gave his inspiring convocation speech for the Roski graduation in 2017, and having conversation with him after—Cheech’s speech was awesome, as he grew up near where USC is, and had a lot of inspiring words for growing up with humor, aspirations, and drive to achieve one’s goals while making the world a better place.

Knowing Cheech is a hero for us all, and personally so monumental for my own life, I was moved to create this painting for Karma LA show, “My American Dream: City of Angels”.  The painting is an appropriation of an image from the famous scene from their 1978 movie “Up in Smoke” where they have been pulled over.  The painting has two of the titles of their most famous routines “Dave’s Not Here” and “Earache My Eye” hidden in the fake fur of their lowrider, and Chong is saying “Hey Man” and Cheech “Ay Caramba!”  I am a narrative artist, where the paintings “talk with one another” and are installed next to one another in a non-linear fashion, to tell the story of Keith’s “American Dream” that have icons such as Mr. Marin, social activists and cultural leaders, and landscapes of current and past of U.S. history that has allowed Andrew and myself to be husbands, in a country that can hopefully still be considered “great” despite, or in face of, the rising political tumult of the far right. I hope this work is in opposition to this, and about Democracy and cultural and political rights and awareness, which obviously Cheech is part of, both in his work and leadership, and his collection of Chicano art and the Cheech Museum.

While painting, I listened to all their comedy albums, more than a few times, in addition to watching all their films (and old videos of their routines filmed in clubs on Youtube, which were revelatory to see their dynamism and true avant garde comedy and great energy that made them famous).  I also listened to the excellent autobiography on Audible of Cheech’s Cheech is not My Real Name, which was fascinating and insightful.  Cheech originally wanted to be an artist, influenced by a great teacher, and studied ceramics, going to Canada to escape the draft and work with a famous ceramist there before going off on his own and meeting Chong, who was already an established musician and promoter, before going fully into comedy with Cheech as a duo.  Their new brand of iconoclast, drug and bohemian based humor touched a nerve and they, after moving to Los Angeles and working intensively at clubs and promoting themselves and their work, became a sensation for the hippy and alternative boomers (and kids like me!) in America and all throughout the world.

This is the iconic scene from their first film, 1978’s Up in Smoke, where Cheech has somehow the hitchhiking Chong, who is in drag (“this is the only way I can get someone to pick me up!”), for a woman, and Chong, in new friendship and generosity, gives Cheech (mistakenly) a bunch of acid, and he himself has swallowed a bunch of drugs to evade the cops that have just pulled them over, and who are about to question and take them in.  This scene was developed first in clubs, where their pantomime and timing were hilarious, and then on their albums (the first was in 1971—that had the “Dave’s Not Here” sketch that is quoted in the fur of the lowrider), and so by the time of the film they were huge stars). “Earache My Eye”, also in the fur, was a skit/song that was a huge hit for kids my age and older, from the Wedding Album on 1974 (that Cheech wears, in punk/hippy triumph a tutu/drag getup on the penultimate “battle of the bands”—the Germs are also one of the acts—at the end of Up in Smoke, that I used to “air guitar” to in my bedroom mirror!). Moved by comics, and wanting to bring new life to the image, I have Cheech saying, “Hey Man!” in his beard, and Cheech saying “ay caramba” (oh no in Spanish).  In pre Renaissance paintings, such by Jan van Eyck, characters in works would also be “talking” with words coming from their mouths way before comic strips were a medium, and I hope to combine the two genres here—the words “whatever man” resolves the conflict in the fur at the base of the window, much in the same nonchalant, non-stressed manner Cheech would ultimately come to peaceful “live and let live” resolutions.  I hope Cheech wouldn’t mind that I changed, in the back window, written backwards, the word “Machine” (from the words on the back window of original car) from “Love Machine” to my own last name “Mayerson” as I’ve enjoyed placing/hiding my signature such as Arcimboldo used to do in his Renaissance fruit men portraits!

Beyond bringing legalizing marijuana to prominence as an activist battle, decades before it actually happened, and while some of the well-intentioned humor might not pass the “PC Police” today, the overwhelming majority of Cheech & Chong’s humor and spirit were very much about the celebration of diversity, class, and the American spirit of questioning authority and fighting for what you believe in for freedom of all peoples to co-exist in harmony and peace.  They were a wellspring for the boomers to come of age, dealing with conservative America by laughing at it and stridently defining outdated conventions, and they were hilarious, much of the humor holding up and their films—true indie movie and at times experimental and edgy—have had generations holding them close to their hearts as “cult classics”.

Cheech has become a true hero for America, for Latino/Chicano culture and beyond.  He has maintained a super successful career, and has worked hard, in a real “American Dream” spirit, making the most of all the wonderful intelligence and talent for acting and comedy he has.  His film Born in East LA was years ahead of its time for celebrating the immigrant story, and his roles in movies and television (including a long run with Don Johnson in the great tv show Nash Bridges) have had an ongoing influence for future generations, with prominent Latino representation for Hollywood and the World. I love that he beat Anderson Cooper on Jeopardy, and whether his own star or portraying characters in animated films, Cheech can maintain his centrality throughout decades of genius work.

His collection of Chicano art is a revelation.  When we first saw it in Long Beach, it blew Andrew and I away—the amazing depth of the collection is incredible, but also the pertinence, beauty, narrative storytelling, and sublimity was out of this world.  Bittersweetly, so much of it could be in any prominent “Artforum” platform contemporary gallery and triumph—but up until recently, much of these artists were neglected by the mainstream, all too white artworld, until now.  Thanks to collectors and influencers like Cheech Marin, artist activists and others who are striving for DEI in our artworld, the ideology and move towards celebrating generations of artists and cultural creators of color has dynamically come about for contemporary art, galleries, and museums.  I’m so grateful that Cheech brought his collection to Riverside California, taking over an old library and turning it into a cultural center and museum for California and the Inland Empire.  For a few years, just before it opened, Andrew and I lived directly down the street from the location, in downtown Riverside, five minutes away from the Cheech (and the famous hotel across the street The Mission Inn, and UC Riverside and more).  Interestingly, Jackson Pollock had also lived nearby with his family in his teen years and would go to the Mission Inn with his brother Charles and be inspired by the art!  Now, Riverside is coming back as a fantastic city, celebrating Latino representation with residents, shop owners, and government (one of the reasons we loved living there!), with now the Cheech at its center.   

Andrew and I now moved about ½ hour away, to the Lake Elsinore area, just on the other side of the neighborhood where we owned his families cabin they had for generations, and now nearby his family—mother, sister, siblings, and now families of nephews and his niece and their kids—who all consider me an uncle, as I’ve known and loved them since they were the age of their own toddlers!  Who knows how my life might have been different without Cheech & Chong, but I’m so glad that they were such a huge influence, giving me the vision and ideology to live the way I do now with my Latino husband (although drugs are bad!).  Genre painting by Frans Hals and more have also been an influence—paintings of everyday life, the bohemian allure of how people really live in the “high” world of Fine Art Oil Painting—and this work hopefully participates, in a very contemporary way, of depicting the scenes that most of America goes through—hopefully in good ways (being profiled by police for being different is another dark side of this work).  I hope my painting celebrates Cheech & Chong, but also the rich cultural diversity (including LGBTQIA ?!) worlds that most of America has now embraced and cherishes—in the face of some of the greatest threats known to democracy in history.