from the theater of the mind. And, as the theater of ancient times was closely related to early religion, Gronk's dramas that unfold on walls, panels, canvas, or scrim have the spiritual effect of revelations. Gronk's sphere of activity, whether painting or performing, lies in the limbo area of the psychic landscape. There, demons of anguish and despair confront the guardian figures of hope and faith in a struggle that appeals to jaded, contemporary souls seeking answers to the spiritual emptiness of everyday life. Despite the gravity of this undertaking, Gronk never fails to enliven his productions with his own brand of ironic, self-deprecating humor.
The influences and inspirations for Gronk's body of work are an amalgam only imaginable in America. Growing up in East Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, Gronk's experience of the Mexican-American mix of Latino culture as it developed into a self-conscious Chicano identity was very much a part of his formative years. The Southern California fascination with film and the pop culture of television and comics also represent important sources for Gronk's ideas.3 But the novels of Albert Camus, the work of the French playwright Alfred Jarry, and the medieval Italian poet Dante, as well as the antics of the Dadaists, images of the American Magic Realists, and the rich tradition of Catholicism, have also contributed to his creative process.
He haunts, intrigues, and engages us with symbols and characters that derive not so much from life, but from the theater of the mind.
Most likely, Gronk's preference for working big and bold comes out of the example set by the Abstract Expressionists -- a kind of "melding of the[ir] heroic gestures" with "the ephemerality of dance and performance art."4
Gronk has said that he knew he was an artist as early as age five. Perhaps it was this predisposition that made it difficult for him to adjust to a regular academic routine. Instead of concentrating on his classes, Gronk did a great deal of studying on his own. He was "the library kid, the one who wanted to read every single thing."5 As soon as he could, he dropped out of high school.
In 1971, together with three collaborators, he founded the performance group ASCO ("nausea" in Spanish). While many Chicano artists sought inspiration and identity in the past, ASCO members "didn't want to go back, we wanted to stay in the present and find our imagery as urban artists."6
California fascination with film and the pop culture of television
and comics . . .
represent important sources for Gronk's ideas.
Gronk continued his youthful soul-searching in street performances, instant murals, walking murals, "no-movies," and "defacements" such as ASCO's graffiti spray-painting of the artists' names on the entrances and exits of the Los Angeles County Museum in 1972.8 For some disaffected people in their community, ASCO members became anti-establishment heroes. Harry Gamboa, an original member of ASCO, described Gronk as being "a 'personality' even back then. He was a myth."9 Gronk's early performances with ASCO included "Stations of the Cross" and "Cockroaches Have No Friends." An enigmatic female character in "Cockroaches" called Cyclona can be seen as the precursor to the recurrent female presence named La Tormenta who would later appear in many of Gronk's paintings.
Later in the 1970s, ASCO artists were included in art exhibitions in alternative spaces such as LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions), as well as commercial galleries and even the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. ASCO continued some of its activities into the 1980s, with many additional members participating in live performances, film and video projects.
While many Chicano artists sought inspiration and identity in the past, ASCO members "didn't want to go back, we wanted to stay in the present and find our imagery as urban artists."
He has spoken of himself as a kind of urban "archeologist," who excavates mysterious messages buried beneath the surface of his urban environment. These messages have an otherworldly quality that Gronk feels compelled to interpret and communicate in his art. The dilapidated hotel sign across the street from his downtown L.A. studio, the traces of an advertisement on an abandoned building in which he deciphered the words "fascinating slippers" are modern-day cultural artifacts that have launched Gronk on lively visual odysseys.
Much of Gronk's most important work of the last ten years has been done either in series or as temporary, mural-scale, site-specific paintings.
Gronk dwells on the impermanence, vulnerability, and frightening transitions that shape human existence and test the limits of our spiritual
Gronk's two paintings for "Kaleidoscope," St. Rose of Lima and his improvisational wall painting executed during the opening week of the exhibition, call to our attention two major characteristics of Gronk's career to date: his repetition of potent images and symbols, such as the female figure La Tormenta, and the interactive process between the artist and his audience that for Gronk is the energizing force behind the site-specific projects.
Images of bottles, coffee cups, wide-tooth grimaces, wine glasses, flames, and severed limbs abound in Gronk's expansive, broadly painted, expressionistic visions. Some of the images are unusual; others, such as the coffee cups, couldn't be more ordinary. The effect of the repeated symbols is cumulative: it establishes a past whose echoes resonate and enrich each subsequent appearance.
He has spoken of himself as a kind of urban "archeologist," who excavates mysterious messages buried beneath the surface of his urban environment.
According to Gronk, La Tormenta's meaning changes with each appearance, depending upon the chronological moment in Gronk's career and the particular visual context, although certain fundamental associations remain central to her significance for the artist. Most basically, she makes Gronk's point that "the back can reveal almost as much as the front."12 What he does not say is that much of the mystery stems from the fact that the back reveals very little. Gronk purposely keeps the meaning ambiguous. He maintains that meaning is not always self-evident; some of it must come to the viewer from within. He also cites biography as one reason he remains attached to the image. Gronk's upbringing in a single-parent home by an independent-minded mother with strong religious beliefs left him with a real-life model for his favorite female personage.
His repetition of potent images and
symbols, such as the female figure La Tormenta, and the interactive
process between the artist and his audience is
the energizing force behind the site-specific projects.
Gronk has always been attracted to live theater and the opera -- other locales where such an exaggerated presence would be right at home. He has been commissioned to design sets for the Los Angeles Opera, and that experience has reinforced his feeling for his character's theatrical persona.
In a performance at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1995, Gronk collaborated with the composer Joseph Julian Gonzalez, the Kronos Quartet, and an opera singer dressed as La Tormenta to produce an improvisational painting on stage. Gronk's actual onstage execution of the painting was accompanied by music that incorporated sounds made by the artist -- the amplification of his brush stroking the canvas -- as part of the score. The mystery lady appeared both in the flesh and as a figurative element in the composition.
La Tormenta/St. Rose can be seen as a kind of alter ego for Gronk -- an artistic individual (a hatmaker) who manifested her presence in the world primarily through her creations.
As a result, she never voluntarily showed her face in public, thus living out her saintly life in anonymity. Some observers have suggested that La Tormenta/St. Rose can be seen as a kind of alter ego for Gronk -- an artistic individual (a hatmaker) who manifested her presence in the world primarily through her creations.
Unlike St. Rose, however, Gronk is a public figure who thrives on social interactions, especially those that derive from his site-specific projects. One of Gronk's original motives in doing such mammoth, improvisational paintings was to create major work that would represent a different kind of purity and integrity because it exists solely for a museum audience and for only a limited period of time. These works have almost no commercial value, but Gronk continues to receive museum requests to produce ephemeral pieces on a grand scale.
Gronk's ability to interact with the audience during these public encounters establishes a relationship with visitors that gives them a personal basis for appreciating contemporary art.
Like the "Hotel" paintings, these site-specific projects explore the theme of life's ephemeral nature in ways that do not diminish life's value and importance, but rather teach us to experience each moment with intensity and reverence.
Gronk's spiritual interpretation of human existence will soon find a new, more permanent site-specific venue: he has been commissioned to paint large interior and exterior murals in a Catholic Church in East Los Angeles dedicated to St. Gertrude.
Jacquelyn Days Serwer
2. Gronk uses only his middle name, a Brazilian Indian word that means "to fly." See Lee Ann Clifton, "Gronk at SJMA," Artweek, 9 April 1992, 21.
3. Gronk cites specifically an old movie called Devil Girls From Mars. Artweek, 25 July 1987, 7.
4. Max F. Schultz, the mythic present of chagoya, valdez, and gronk (Los Angeles: Fisher Gallery, University of Southern California, 1995), 9.
5. Steven Durland and Linda Burnham, "Art with a Chicano Accent," High Performance 35 (1986): 57.
6. Ibid., 57.
7. Gronk clarified what he meant by stereotyping in the following comment: "If [well-known white artist] Jon Borofsky makes a wall painting, it's called an installation. If I do one, it's called a mural, because I'm supposed to be making murals in an economically deprived neighborhood." Quoted in Lucy Lippard, Mixed Blessings (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990), 29.
8. The "no-movies" were described by ASCO member Gamboa this way: "We would create a scene to give almost a cinematic feel, as if it were a frame from the rest of the movie. You could take it out and that image...could create a whole concept." Steven Durland and Linda Burnham, "Interview with Harry Gamboa, Jr., and ASCO," High Performance 35 (1986): 52.
9. Durland and Burnham, "Art with a Chicano Accent," 51.
10. Max Benavidez, "Hotel Senator: 13 Portals to the Underworld," Gronk: Hotel Senator (Los Angeles: Daniel Saxon Gallery, 1990).
11. Interview with the author, 18 August 1995.
12. Radio interview, KGNU, 7 October 1994.
13. According to a 1995 interview, Gronk identifies the visual inspiration for La Tormenta as coming "specifically from Ingrid Bergman's appearance in a V-backed dress in Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 film, Notorious. See Schultz, the mythic present, 7.
14. Reference sources provide slightly different details of the saint's life. See Butler's Lives of the Saints, ed. Michael Walsh (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 260-61; and David Hughes Framer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 349.