Speaking in Many Artistic Tones

Gronk the Artist
Gronk is easily one of the most recognized Chicano painters. And yet he remains a mysterious and mercurial figure, just as he was for those who first met him in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There is, first of all, the question of his name, its origin traced variously to a story about the Amazon in National Geographic or to a character in the short-lived CBS television series It’s About Time. Indeed, Gronk has gone by many names since the 1950s, under-scoring not only his artistic self-invention but also his underlying conceptual approach to art, identity, and politics. Rather than vesting himself in the object (both thing and goal), Gronk privileges the idea, because ideas can change and can bring change. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), ix.
Hit and Run
In Hit and Run from 1993, Gronk painted the far wall of the museum's main gallery, playing music, talking with passersby, and even stopping to give impromptu lectures to assembled students. As he applied layer upon layer of paint, using a power lift to reach the upper portions of the wall, familiar Gronkian shapes emerged, merged, and transformed, only to be covered over the next day. Each day, I [Chon A. Noriega] would secretly will him to stop, since what he had painted seemed so beautiful, so compelling, and so complete. But he continued. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), xi.
A Different View of an Artist
Growing up in East Los Angeles amid poverty and police riots, the recipient of a dead-end education in barrio schools, Gronk became an autodidact whose critical interests included art cinema, modernist theater, and campy B-movies, along with a wide array of philosophers, theorists, and writers. In this book [A Ver: Revisioning History, Volume I], Max Benavidez gives us a different view of the “Chicano painter” from East Los Angeles. Here, we see an artist inventing himself within a global artistic frame of reference, even as his work intervened in volatile social conflicts in Los Angeles: homophobia in the Chicano community, police crackdowns on civil rights protests, racial biases in the print and electronic news media, and the exclusionary practices of the local arts institutions. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), ix.
La Tormenta
As a classic image, La Tormenta is one of the enduring symbols of the performative nature of sexual identity. In that sense, she is a political performance. She tells us that sexual identity (and for that matter cultural or racial identity) has an element of illusion in its social construction. The nature of self is something we create because in creating it we produce the self that is there to be identified. In the end, Tormenta, the black-and-white enigmatic creature, is a cipher made of signs pointing toward meaning. Ultimately, she is liminality in all its transformative possibilities.  Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), 70.
Speaking in Many Artistic Tones
If Gronk remains a mysterious figure, that has largely to do with the fact that critics have recognized just the tip of the iceberg (a recurring image in Gronk’s work). They often describe him as a painter and also as a co-founder of the Chicano conceptual art group Asco. But, as Benavidez notes, Gronk’s is a “hybrid voice that speaks in many artistic tongues”: painting, drawing, graphic arts, murals, performance art (street, stage, and video), photography, set design, ceramics, and computer-generated animation. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), ix.
No Movies
Because Hollywood discriminated against Chicanos in terms of both industry access and representation, Asco reconceptualized and inverted the idea of the Hollywood movie. Often circulated by mail in a series of press kits and production stills, the No Movies' enigmatic imagery and evocative titles referred to nonexistent films while constructing the group as media celebrities. Commenting upon the contentious relationship between Chicanos and the mainstream media, the photographs simultaneously denied and affirmed the viability of an alternative cinema, satirizing emergent Chicano film practices that transferred the didactic nationalism of murals to a new medium. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), 45.

Gronk's large sets for the first fully-staged production of Ainadamar represent another career milestone.

Gronk's BrainFlame is the animated version and a visual interpretation of what he sees as the creative process, as well as an inventory of his imagery to this point in his career. His abstract works from the late 1990s and the early twenty-first century and the figures and landscapes from his diaries join together in one massive visualization of what it means to create.

While Gronk is most often associated with Asco, he has had other significant collaborators, before, during, and since Asco: Mundo Meza and Robert “Cyclona” Legorreta (performance), Willie Herrón III (murals), Jerry Dreva (mail art), the Kronos Quartet (music and action painting), and Peter Sellars (set design), among others. He staged the earliest gay-themed performance in East Los Angeles, contributed to the emergence of gay punk, alternative, and Chicano art spaces, and—as a member of Asco—developed and theorized the No Movie concurrent with similar instances of conceptual or “expanded” cinema around the world. In short, his work constitutes a nexus for several art histories that have been seen as distinct. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), ix-x.
ASCO Street Performances
Asco turned its attention from the museum to the streets, from the art world to a community engaged in social protest. Its origins were activist rather than academic, and for good reason. In the 1960s, East Los Angeles high schools had the highest dropout rates in the nation, while Chicanos counted for a disproportionately high number of casualties in Vietnam. Asco has influenced or provided a point of reference for a new generation of artists and artist groups whose work explores similar issues within public space, including the groups Language (Mario Ybarra Jr and Juan Capistran) and The Pocho Research Society of Erased and Invisible History (Sandra de la Loza), as well as individual artists such as Arturo Ernesto Romo and Ruben Ochoa.
Black & White Mural
Gronk and Herrón's Black and White Mural was painted in 1973 and located in a housing project, not in a museum or gallery. In effect, the artists rewrote recent history using the visual style of the very media that had presented distorted images to the public--television and newspapers. And they did so using the community itself as their "canvas," rather than the usual sites for the news media (the home) and the art market (gallery space). Through this aesthetic approach, the pair created one of the first post-Chicano murals that would, in turn, lead to other forms of post-identity art. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), 28.
Black & White Mural (details)
The mural they painted together was commissioned as part of a beautification project at the Estrada Courts housing project, for which eighty-two murals were painted between 1972 and 1978. It memorialized one of the most significant events in Chicano history: the national Chicano Moratorium, a massive protest by 30,000 Chicanos against the Vietnam War. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), 26.
Caras (Faces)
In 1973 Gronk and Herrón completed Caras, a mural (no longer extant) in a pavilion at City Terrace Park in East Los Angeles. This mural again captures the poignant anger of their work during this period. It is helpful to think of the place where the mural existed for nearly twenty years: a recreation center that was often a nightly gathering spot for lost and searching youth. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), 31.
Mas Caras
The faces in this mural are overlaid with graffiti, creating a rough-hewn texture of life without redemption or salvation. We see hope and fear, the violence of poverty, the injustice of miseducation, and the crowded conditions of urban life for poor people. The imagery shows us the madness, the turmoil, the chaos of life in the East Los Angeles barrio in 1973. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), 31.
An Artist Across Time
Looking backward and forward in time, we can see that a line--curved, not straight, but not crooked either--can be drawn from Gronk's work with Asco (such as the conceptual No Movie) to his collaboration with Dreva to his mainstream art world coming-out party at MOCA's Temporary Contemporary space in 1985. The line continues to his private diaries and journals and, ultimately, to his computer animation work in Gronk's BrainFlame and his set for the opera Ainadamar. While aesthetic and conceptual continuity might therefore be somewhat apparent across his career, these milestones also mark a steady trajectory toward international recognition. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), 84.
Doorman with Key (1990)
The fleshless figure is featureless. The blank face suggests generality and abstractions. Gronk seems less concerned with the specific outright expressions of inhumanity and more preoccupied with the feelings left behind. This is about the imperceptible on one level, but about the palpable on a completely different level. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), 78-9.
Gronk created an installation for Urban Narrative called Cheap Construction. As part of an autobiographical framework, the piece is about the destruction of the Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) that Gronk has consistently engaged in his work. Gentrification and "urban renewal" constitute perhaps the most recent chapter of this story, the newest layers of this tattered palimpsest. As more people move into converted lofts, Gronk has noticed that many new occupants use drywall to build little rooms, boxes of privacy and isolation. This private renovation may predict the alteration of public space, the transformation of a bustling Latino shopping district into a sanitized open-air mall. The silver sandals in his installation not only evoked a little girl lost in the city but also called forth memories of a time and perhaps an innocence that is slipping away. Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), 87.
No End
Gronk’s self-invention, hybrid voice, and conceptualism pose a challenge to clear-cut categories, identities, and practices—including the gallery system, toward which he remains ambivalent, but within which he has succeeded. “In the end,” he explains, “I am not going to ask for permission to do something.” Text from Max Benavidez, "Gronk" (CSRC Press), x.
Credits: Story

Courtesy of the artist and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Benavidez, M., Noriega, C. A., & Ponsie, S. L. (2007). Gronk. Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.
Volume 1 of A Ver: Revisioning Art History, a series dedicated to the contributions of Latino and Latina artists to American and World Art History.

From more information on how to purchase Gronk, visit the University of Minnesota Press website.

See also: Teacher's Guide for Gronk

Special thanks to: Harry Gamboa Jr.

Credits: All media
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