Gronk’s Theatre of Paint
Craft & Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles
May 29 - September 4, 2016
By MEGAN ABRAHAMS, SEPT. 2016
Encountering Gronk’s Theatre of Paint is like discovering a hidden cave in which the walls have been layered over time with mysterious pictographs documenting a secret thespian world. Inspired by poetry, grounded in history, driven by story, music and character, the exhibition chronicles Gronk’s inventive and dynamic approach to set design, the vital visual component of theatre.
The multi-faceted exhibition features large scale painted backdrops from a selection of Gronk’s theatrical projects, such as the acrylic on canvas painting created by the artist for the 1994 Cornerstone Theatre Company production of Los Faustinos. The first piece the viewer encounters on entering the gallery, the painting is composed of overlapping and interlocking imagery, reminiscent of drawings on a cave wall – but ratcheted up several degrees by the infusion of a contemporary urban visual lexicon. Woven into the graffiti-like imagery are houses, profiles of faces, silhouetted figures, cross-hatched lines suggesting fences, barbed wire, a maze and flames.
One of the most striking pieces in the exhibit is the painting “Tormenta 2016,” (2016, acrylic paint, oil pastel on wood panel) which portrays the rear view of an imposing female figure in a long black gown, V-neck plunging down her back. The elegant figure contrasts with a wild and frenzied background composed of vibrant colors featuring graffiti like squiggles and gestural marks. Gronk first conceived this iconic figure as a symbol of female strength in the 1980s. Versions of Tormenta have since continued to appear in his oeuvre.
Rounding out the exhibition are assorted ephemera, like props and masks, as well as video footage and dioramas of miniature sets, which add detail and depth to the big picture impact of Gronk’s Theatre of Paint. Particularly fascinating is a notebook filled with the artist’s sketches and jottings which give a tantalizing glimpse into his process. The artist’s work in theatre has evolved since the 1990s in scope, scale and vision, to transcend mere backdrops or sets. He has gone on to envision fully encompassing installations – at times even including painted floors – constructing elaborate engaging sets that embrace space, story and players. Gronk has had a longtime fascination with science fiction, B movies and the horror genre.
Adding another layer, the exhibit includes a commissioned site-specific installation inspired by an imaginary production derived from the book of science fiction poetry, Tomorrow You’ll Be One of Us. Adapted from sci-fi and B-movie dialogue, the book was written by Chuck Rosenthal and Gail Wronsky, with witty and surreal illustrations by Gronk. An offshoot of the book, the installation is interactive, inviting viewers to explore a display of props, in a sense making their own version of drama. Although the book is a separate project, it shares something with the exhibit in that it represents the power of the imagination to conceive and develop story. One poem with particular relevance is entitled, “Something has Happened Here that isn’t in the Book.” The first line addresses a pertinent theme: “It’s like having a grandstand seat for the creation of the world—or its death.” Theatre might be thought of that way, and perhaps that’s part of its allure for Gronk. However artificial and contrived the drama of the stage, it is a compelling art form that offers an insight into our understanding of history, human lives and the real world outside.
A fixture in the Los Angeles urban art scene beginning in the 1970s, Gronk, born Glugio Nicandro, is most well known for his work as a painter and muralist. In fact, the artist has always embraced a broad inter-disciplinary practice, including multi-media work, performance and set design. In his stage design work, Gronk somehow marries a low brow B-movie sensibility with the glamor of opera. Even in a museum setting, removed from the actors and the unfolding drama of a play or opera, his paintings, masks and other paraphernalia of the theatre convey a strong sense of narrative. The sets – with recurring motifs, figures and faces suggesting movement, and the bold use of color projecting emotional subtext – all contribute, playing their own role in telling story and helping theatre come alive.
Organized by Holly Jerger, CAFAM’s curator of exhibitions, in collaboration with Gronk, this is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in Los Angeles in more than two decades.
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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