Spontaneity, politics and confrontation marked much of the street theater and performance art of the Sixties and Seventies. And like many artists who came of age in that free-swinging era, L.A.'s Glugio Gronk Nicadro was drawn to art that encouraged direct interaction with the viewer, literally off-the-wall art forms that thrived in the city's mellow, outdoorsy milieu. Gronk--who goes by his unusual middle name ("gronk" means "to fly" in Brazilian-Portuguese patois)--began his remarkable career in 1972 with a guerrilla-theater troupe that signed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, claiming it as their own, and his work with the Chicano activist theater group ASCO ("nausea" in Spanish) is legendary.
Holding fast to his artistic roots, Gronk continues to embrace the impromptu in art. In fact, the key work in the show ÁGronk!: Past and Present, now at CU-Boulder's UMC Gallery, is still in progress--an original mural that the artist is creating with the assistance of Front Range schoolchildren. And although Gronk no longer performs the street-art pranks for which he and ASCO collaborators were famous--giving dinner parties on traffic islands or taping friends to walls and calling them living murals--the spirit of the street, especially the barrios of East Los Angeles, still enlivens his vision.
Although Gronk's style could be described as neo-expressionistic, he calls it "a parody" of that genre, perhaps to remind people of the clownish, entertaining aspects of his art. A taste of the artist's rebellious humor can be sampled here in four elaborate, one-of-a-kind ink drawings executed on paper napkins from cheap restaurants.
The exhibit also features acrylic paintings from the late Eighties along with new etchings, drawings and lithographic works, a video and, of course, the new mural, which will be painted over at show's end. While some might decry the loss of original artwork (Gronk's "performance murals" are routinely destroyed), the artist claims to be unattached to the results of his labors. The magical, shared experience of making the mural is the true object of this kind of art, a singular moment that cannot be preserved or sold.
The nonmural pieces on display here are on the tame side (some of Gronk's more exciting but graphic and intensely political paintings can be glimpsed in the accompanying catalogue of the full-scale Gronk retrospective at San Francisco's Mexican Museum, of which this show is but a small traveling selection). Even so, disturbing images of crisis and confusion in shadowy urban settings appear, scrawled in Gronk's distinctive, big-brushed, schoolboy strokes. He portrays the American Dream in dark tones--abundant and seductive with material goods and full plates, but dangerous, bursting without warning into flames and street warfare.
The murkiest example of this dense, turgid style is "2nd Street," a crazed, doodly composition that might depict a rat's-eye perspective of a luxury cruise ship. A UFO hovers nearby, and the whole scene unravels at the edges, painted plumes of smoke rising from outside the frame. "Hotel Tormenta" (Storm Hotel) is one of Gronk's lighter-toned paintings, at least in hue. The content, however, is a shade ghastly: A stunted, human figure, headless and helpless, chases its own inflated and topsy-turvy heart through a cartoonlike city street. Surmounting the scene is a big, grinning mouth sporting real glass jewels in an ironic, painted laugh. "Attack From Both Sides," the artist's comment on addiction, suspends a faceless body between a champagne glass (a frequent Gronk motif) and a highball.
Viewers can participate in Gronk's mural-orchestrating events through this Thursday evening, at which time the artist will finish the wall-long painting, give a short lecture at the UMC ballroom and withdraw with a flourish, following in the tradition of street performers everywhere.