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Retrato del artista by        Gronk

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Jun 22, 2001
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Gronk in his studio
Interviewer: Cynthia MacMullin

LatinArt:  In the mid 80’s your work was exhibited at MOCA and your career commercially took off. Some have said that was a defining moment in your career. Can you speak about this time a bit?

Gronk:  It certainly was an important time and it did have an impact on my life and on my visibility as an artist. I had been doing many other things prior to that show, of course, because there’s always a history before you get discovered, like there were already people here before Columbus came! It was luck, it was chance and it was the right time frame for me. And I felt comfortable. MOCA wasn’t quite sure who I was and what I did. I think, really, because they had no access to it. It was rumored that I did this or I did that...different people told them different things: "you know, there’s this guy in East L.A. who does this kind of performance work..."

When we (ASCO) were doing a lot of the work, performance was not even a word we were utilizing at the time. There were Happenings in the 50’s and the 60’s. There were others doing performance kind of work. There were Russian constructivists, there was a lot of work going on in Brazil and all over the place...and, of course, I knew that. (Chuckle)

After a brief visit by two well dressed MOCA curators, I get a call the next day asking me if I want to do a show called "New Directions," a show with ten new artists. It really was an important point in my career. That piece was the entire wall space at MOCA together with a performative aspect in which I set up a mock trial where I was asked to defend my work, was a growing experience for me. The culmination of the trial had me pronounced guilty by the jury of art critics and condemned to paint ethnic murals in economically deprived neighborhoods for the rest of life. (Laughs) Stay out of the avant-garde! Stay out of the mainstream! Be put in your place! (Laughs)

LatinArt:  How did this affect you commercially?

Gronk:  From that, Dan Saxon the gallery owner here in L.A., saw the piece and invited me to have lunch - a very California thing to do - and we discussed what was essentially the rest of my career. Dan represented me and I had the first show in his new gallery and it was non- stop, everything planned, conquer, conquer...and yes, I wanted it all. My first show sold out and subsequent shows did extremely well and after that it was one after the other. Museum shows and commercial galleries in succession that it finally got to the point that I didn’t want to do them anymore and my work started to suffer because I had no time in between. That in-between time is so important because it’s the time when you piece things together. I was losing my connection with my work. The only connections I had through them were slides. I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. I had a meeting with Dan and told him that I wanted to drop my commercial gallery shows, that I wanted to do shows only when I was ready to do shows. If it took two years to do a show, then it took two years. In the early nineties I started to cut the number of shows, and it was during this time that the collaboration with composers and other artists like Peter Sellers. It’s also when the Tormenta Cantata work developed.

LatinArt:  What do you think now about this decision?

Gronk:  People would often tell me that I was cutting my own throat by doing that, that if I didn’t produce I would disappear. Well, I prefer to do that and work at a pace I’m comfortable with rather than produce these ugly paintings because I have commitments. That’s not why I wanted to be an artist. I mean, I’m glad that it all happened. Being in the museum and talking about my work helped me articulate what it meant to me as well, so that was very positive. I’m also glad that I got to see how the art mechanism works and to also, very often, be the first Latino to be exhibited in a museum and to be treated like a person. Of course, often you would get that kind that would say to me (Gronk mimics in a very slow voice) "You - speak - English - very - well." (Gronk’s reply) "Yes - I - was - born - here." (laughs).

LatinArt:  Can you talk to us about your work with the Tormenta Cantata series? What I find interesting with this project is, unlike other collaborations with art and music, where the artists work separately, this project is a union of both arts.

Gronk:  The composer of the piece, Joseph Gonzalez, wrote the piece thinking about the way I move when I paint, almost like a dance. There are segments that sound like a tango, for example that are taken from how I move when I paint that part of the work. My movements are written into the score and the brush lines are written along with the musical notes. I also have to emphasis my gestures more because the musicians are depending on me to conduct them. It’s often very challenging because there are different riffs within the score. There is a mariachi riff in one of the movements, and here is this classically trained string quartet trying to play something they’ve never practiced. Once they let go of all the baggage and just go for it, it comes out great.

Someone would say this piece is avant-garde, but how this piece came about revolves around my conversations with Joseph, and how other music/visual arts collaborations worked in the past like Satie, Picasso, Cocteau, Cunningham, and John Cage. We didn’t want to follow these models where everyone is working separately. We wanted the music to be integrated into the work itself. My painting style has dance steps to it and there is a performative/dance aspect to this work. So Tormenta, which in Spanish means storm, came about from working on my journals, yet there has always been something classical about this female image that I liked. So it’s keeping with my interest in film and the melodramatic interest I had in operatic works that were all discussed before we went to work. We performed it first at UCLA with the Chronos orchestra, then several times after that.

LatinArt:  Does this work reflect your Latino heritage?

Gronk:  No more, no less than Wagner or Mozart who brought in "folk" elements from their own culture. It’s like they utilized a lot of different elements from their own backgrounds. One of the segments is called "Paper Airplane." It has a very folk element because paper airplanes are things that everyone can make. Introducing mariachi, for example, has folk aspects as well. Of course, we use these elements with respect and try not to make it all "cutesy."

LatinArt:  There seems to have been as much written about your persona as there has been about your work. Can you talk a bit about this?

Gronk:  A lot of times people gravitated to the myth. They read a lot of different things, and rumors start, and by the time they get back to me it’s totally wrong except for a line or two.

LatinArt:  That was definitely the case when I was doing research for this interview.

Gronk:  It’s getting better because there is a generation of young scholars who are coming out of the university. It’s great because they are more interested in the work. I get a lot of younger artists who tend to gravitate to me rather than the other artists working at the time. I didn’t do low riders, I didn’t do the pachuco. I didn’t do that kind of imagery and a lot of younger artists are fascinated that I didn’t have to do that. So, a lot of young scholars are finally writing and re-writing books correctly, and that’s great because now there is a history there to study.

LatinArt:  Can you talk a bit about ASCO?

Gronk:  There’s a book called Urban Exile, that talks about the artists we dealt with at the time-Carlos Almaraz, John Valadez and others-and it also documents a lot of the work we did. We grew up at a time that charged our work from the beginning, as young teens. There was a war in Vietnam, you were drafted and then came back in a body bag. So it was, perhaps, those things that gave us nausea - asco. It gave us a sense of powerlessness but also a sense of urgency that we weren’t going to live very long. We felt that we didn’t have to ask permission to do what we were going to do and therefore just did it. We didn’t sulk and say "well, gee, Hollywood doesn’t want me." Well, create your own sense of cinema! Which we did and it was called the "no-movie," making movies without the use of celluloid and giving all these pieces we were doing on the street a sense that they were a still from a film. We became the directors, and the actors and created these scenarios. Because of course all you saw was the gangster, the hood and the drug dealer. Hell, we were glamorous! We took chances, like having a dinner party on a traffic island and eating a meal before the police came. I will often talk about those works as playing off the absurdity of what was happening then. The Chicano moratorium had just taken place in East L.A. and people were not allowed to collect into groups or else the police would come. So we thought it’s time to stop that. The project was called "The First Supper after a Major Riot" so it was also a pun on the Church.

LatinArt:  How did all of you work together?

Gronk:  Harry and I talked a lot about these ideas and ASCO was very much an idea driven entity. Harry was very much into the intellectual aspects of this. Everyone though contributed to ASCO. Willie and I used to paint together but when you paint you don’t necessarily talk. With Patssi there was the glamour and ideas about that, which I really enjoyed. There were no bylaws and it was free flowing. With other groups there were more concrete manifestos but with us it was much looser.

LatinArt:  So many artists are influenced by their environment and I see so much of your work as a reflection of Los Angeles, its artists and the urban scene here.

Gronk:  I don’t mind being compared to other artists, as it’s usually complimentary. There are certainly elements you can find in my work of artists whom I’ve studied. The brown tones I used for a while came from Joaquin Torres-Garcia, the Uruguayan. When I do a mural in a museum they’re usually whitewashed afterwards, which is a nod to Rivera and Siqueiros who had there works here in this country destroyed. So there is a look and a respect for those before me, but it’s also from other areas...artists like Max Beckman, or George Grozs. When I say I’m urban it’s also because of the wide arrange of influences.

LatinArt:  You grew up very close to Self-Help Graphics in East L.A. What was your relationship with them?

Gronk:  Initially we really did not abide by their guidelines to art-making. Our work was very urban. Harry and I thought that we couldn’t do any imagery about farm workers. I mean, I didn’t have that experience. Let somebody else do that. My experience is the street. It’s urban and I have to be honest with my work and not try to impose things. I mean, there’s enough people that do the Virgin of Guadalupe! Religion was not that important to me nor was it part of my upbringing. I usually use religion like Luis Buñuel did, who would always skewer religion. I want to be the observer in the sense that an observer is an outsider looking in. I want to observe the moment I’m living in with all its guises and perhaps share with other people my observations.

LatinArt:  Is there any form of documentation of these observations?

Gronk:  The documentation can be found in my journals. There are approximately 250 volumes in my journals. I may use some ideas or I may not, but they’ve been ongoing since 1978. It’s where I jot down ideas and points of inspiration.

LatinArt:  What about your inspirations?

Gronk:  People think that my inspirations, or my heroes, are painters because they think of me as a painter, but most of my inspiration comes from writers: the Russian writers, people like Camus - a large range of writers. Like with Harry, our camaraderie was because he was a writer. Another influence came from film and directors like Hitchcock. I mean, right away, people want to associate you with Mexican painters. (Gronk breaks into character) "Do you like Siqueiros?" "Yes, I like Siqueiros." (Laughs)

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