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Gronk: Taking a look behind the curtain

February 25, 2007|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

In some instances, that approach makes sense, Noriega says. "But in other cases, like Gronk, it's not true at all. The Chicano political and social movement is clearly part of his work, but Gronk operates in so many other contexts -- the emergence of gay art, the punk scene, correspondence art, performance art -- all these things make him a much more complicated figure. Unless we look at his work on its own terms and connect it to the broader history, we're going to sell him short as an artist. If we sell him short, we sell short the idea of Chicano art as something worth looking at."

Glugio Gronk Nicandro grew up broke, gay and intensely curious in East L.A., raised by a single mom, surrounded by gang violence and obsessed by his goal of reading every single book at the local library.

In the early '70s, he co-founded the subversive multimedia collective Asco (Spanish for "nausea"). Dismissed by museum officials as folk artists, Gronk and partners Harry Gamboa Jr., Patssi Valdez and Willie Herron III earned a measure of notoriety in 1972 with their "Spraypaint LACMA" piece, for which Gronk, Gamboa and Herron painted their names on the outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, then returned the next day to photograph Valdez with their handiwork.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 27, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Max Benavidez: An article in Sunday's Arts & Music section about the Latino artist Gronk referred to the author of a new book about him as Max Benavides. The writer's last name is Benavidez.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Max Benavidez: An article in the Arts & Music section on Feb. 25 about the Latino artist Gronk referred to the author of a new book about him as Max Benavides. The writer's last name is Benavidez.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Gronk art: A photograph of the painting "Enter Tormenta" by the artist Gronk on the Feb. 25 Arts & Music cover was incorrectly credited to the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. It was taken by Kim Kosai for the Carnegie Art Museum.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 11, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit: A photograph of the painting "Enter Tormenta" by the artist Gronk on the Feb. 25 Arts & Music cover was incorrectly credited to UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. It was taken by Kim Kosai for the Carnegie Art Museum.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Gronk art: A photograph of the painting "Enter Tormenta" by the artist Gronk on the Feb. 25 Arts & Music cover was incorrectly credited to the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. It was taken by Kim Kosai for the Carnegie Art Museum.

"They tagged the museum, took the picture with Patssi and all their names signed on it and said, 'The museum is one of our artworks,' " "Gronk" author Max Benavides says. "It was one of the most audacious conceptual pieces anybody's ever done in L.A. The street was their studio, the street was their gallery, and the street was where they took their inspiration."

Twenty-one years after Asco's so-called "Pie in Deface" protest, Gronk became the first Chicano artist to have a solo exhibition at LACMA. In 1997, he used an amplified paintbrush as a baton, conducting the Kronos Quartet as he completed a painting in tempo to Joseph Julian Gonzalez's 45-minute composition "Tormenta Cantata." Recent set designs for opera director Peter Sellars -- including for Igor Stravinsky's "The Story of a Soldier" in 1998, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Music Center, and Osvaldo Golijov's "Ainadamar," which opened in Santa Fe in 2005 and later played Lincoln Center in New York -- further enhanced Gronk's reputation.

Benavidez, a former adjunct faculty member at UCLA's Cesar E. Chavez Center, views the artist as a sort of "post-Chicano paradigm." Gronk's work certainly reflected a Chicano sensibility, Benavidez says, "but I see him now as this more global type of artist, in that he can't be categorized or put into a box. Yes, he comes out of East L.A. at a particular time, but he's also been a downtown guy and epitomizes that art scene with all its ups and downs. He's a polymath with all these other influences to draw from."

New performances, new palettes

INDEED, Gronk wryly notes that Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" may have had as much impact on his aesthetic as Diego Rivera. "My earlier paintings, in the '80s, were very bright and vibrant," he says. "People sometimes tell me they remind them of a fiesta, and I say, 'Stop right there: Wrong.' It's MGM musicals. That's my palette. I'm deriving the richness and saturation of those colors from Vincente Minnelli."

Gronk says he never felt locked in by stereotypes. "Asco was criticized by many people for not doing Aztec gods or things along those lines. Some people want obvious political slogans they can identify with immediately. Well, my work is not like a sitcom. It's not an easy solution. The characters have to come back the next episode. You have to think a little bit more about my work because the more you put into it, the more you're going to get back."

As houseguest David Garza, an Austin musician, noodles on a nearby spinet piano, Gronk settles into a nearly Zen-like demeanor that contrasts with some of his more outrageous street theater back in the day. He did, after all, tape Valdez onto a wall for Gamboa's 1974 "Instant Mural." "That's the performing part," he says. "The real me is low-key and calm. I'm the idea person intrigued by pulling things together, taking them apart, constructing my own world."

Even as Gronk explores new venues, color palettes, collaborations and media, the fascination with ephemeral, performance-based art remains essentially unchanged, according to Benavidez. "In the early years, Gronk did so many murals and loved to see them destroyed," he says. "When his 'Urban Narrative' show at Gallery 727 closed in 2005, the people there said, 'What do we do with this "Cheap Construction" piece?' He told them, 'Just paint over it. It's gone.' I've never known any artist who gets such a rush from the fact that things are here and then they're gone."

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