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ART REVIEW : The Two Lives of Gronk : The LACMA exhibition shows how the artist began his career as an anti-art rebel, but later turned to a mainstream painting style.

March 19, 1994|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Is it possible for an artist to begin a career in a determined anti-art mode, which spits out absurdist and confrontational gestures against the failures of bourgeois society, and then to switch successfully into a form that is steeped in conservative tradition?

That question is at the heart of "Gronk! A Living Survey, 1973-1993," a smallish exhibition that opened Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show was organized by Rene Yanez, curator of the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, where it had its debut last summer. It cleaves into two parts.

First is an assembly of artifacts, souvenirs, drawings, sketchbooks and mementos from Gronk's earliest involvement with street theater, mural painting, performance and Conceptual art in the 1970s. Next come about two dozen Expressionist paintings in oil or acrylic, as well as a few drawings and prints, which the L.A.-based artist has been making since 1984. Connections between the two periods are easy to draw, but only the earlier is of sustaining interest.

Gronk--he was born Glugio Nicandro in 1954--began to make art as a member of the rambunctious Chicano collective, ASCO, founded in 1972. Together with Harry Gamboa Jr., Willie Herron and Patssi Valdez, he participated in a variety of boisterous activities that partook of a renewed interest in Dadaist art common among American and European artists of the period.

ASCO is a Spanish word for disgust, loathing or nausea. The snappy capitalization of the group's name made it wickedly redolent of commercial corporate logos--sort of ACME with a hangover. Inspired in part by the contemporaneous spirit of the Chicano civil rights movement, Pop art, anti-war activism, feminism, post-Stonewall gay liberation and other complex currents of the day, the artists brought Zurich Dada of the late-1910s to 1970s Los Angeles.

Photographs in the exhibition's two jam-packed display cases suggest how, in mocking recognition of the near invisibility of Latino life in Hollywood products, movies were conceived, written, directed and acted out in the streets--albeit without the otherwise essential use of movie cameras or film. Other pictures show a heavily made-up Valdez pinned to highway retaining walls with industrial tape, creating a sly and resonant mix: She's part "talking mural," in homage to the Mexican tradition of painted walls that speak to passers-by, and part community representative held in bondage by the culture.

Among ASCO's earliest, simplest and most devastating actions was to illegally spray-paint the collective's name on the entrance doors to the County Museum of Art. Thus tagged, the artistic legacy of the mainstream as represented by the museum was deftly claimed as their inviolable turf.

The artifacts in the exhibition's display cases create a fascinating time capsule of a lively and inventive moment. Disappointingly, the show's slim and boosterish catalogue does little to chronicle this significant history--and Gronk's specific role in it--in any but a cursory way; nor does it offer much sense of how and why the group began to unravel.

*

But unravel it did. By the early 1980s the artists of ASCO had gone their separate ways; in 1984 Gronk began to paint.

He had of course painted before, but not quite in the way he does now--which is to say, in the typical, gallery-bound format of oil or acrylic on canvas, and in a painterly style of simplified, posterish images. The date of this sudden move is instructive. For painting, after a long hiatus, had by then definitively returned to the art-world's international center stage.

American, Italian and, especially, German Neo-expressionism were fueling a newly explosive art market, while the first U.S. exhibitions of the decisive German branch had been prominently displayed in Southern California. The L.A. art scene, relatively moribund during Gronk's earliest years, now claimed a new Museum of Contemporary Art and a rash of new commercial galleries, and was on its way to capturing a place in the spotlight.

Gronk's switch to a mainstream painting style doesn't feel like a cynical repudiation of ASCO's earlier aims. As a scan of the sketchbooks shows, such images as a dark-haired woman in a back-less dress and seen from behind (Valdez?) even carry over into similarly themed paintings. Gronk's most common subject is a rear view of an anonymous, theatrically garbed woman gesticulating before an open window.

Instead, Gronk seems to be painting as if his canvases are meant as a kind of mis en scene --portable murals--to decorate the raucous new theater of an expansive art world. His pictures of lone women contemplating painted rectangular vistas mimic the artist's (and the viewer's) place and action before the painting itself, while 1984's "Cabin Fever" is a satirical depiction of a black-tie, cocktail-party crowd, which mirrors the familiar sight of upscale revelers at an art exhibition opening.

Other apparently autobiographical paintings are also on view. But Gronk's embrace of an old-fashioned style--standard emotive Expressionism--makes for pretty routine stuff. The pictures, absent the sometimes razor-sharp edge of his youthfully incursive Dadaism, seem to want to merge private introspection with social commentary in an effort to represent identity. The result is painting as a merely stylish mask.

* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through May 15. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

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