Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Painting Theater" (on Gronk's "Theater of Paint")

painting theater
by Douglas Messerli

Gronk Theater of Paint, Los Angeles, Craft & Folk Art Museum, Howard Fox, Pablo Capra, and I attended the show on Sunday, July 3, 2016

Just a few weeks ago I mentioned to my husband Howard that I had not seen new work by the Los Angeles artist Gronk for some time now. In fact, it turns out that he has not had a solo museum exhibition in Los Angeles for more than two decades. Now, fortunately, the Craft & Folk Art Museum reveals to us what Gronk has been up to in a stunning new exhibition, “Theater of Paint.”

Certainly there are a few older paintings and photographs in this show, including two versions of his famed female image La Tormenta, a strong woman figure facing away from the viewer, her back to us, forcing us to stare into the same distant space in which she is looking. And there are a few older documentary works from his early days working with the ASCO group. But even these exceptions merely reveal that Gronk has been interested in performance and theater since his earliest days. Along with Patssi Valdez, Willie F. Herrón III, and Harrry Gamboa, Jr., Gronk staged several street theater pieces, improvising narratives that interacted with the real space. And in 1997 La Tormenta was herself the subject of a concert piece, written by Froykan Cabuto with music by Otto Cifuentes performed while Gronk painted, in time with the music, yet a another image of his iconic figure; so here too Gronk reveals, as he explained to Howard, our friend Pablo Capra, and me in a personal tour of the show, that he has long focused on painting in a theatrical context.

     Beginning in 1989, moreover, the artist turned his attention directly on creating large canvases with wooden and cardboard accessories for plays and operas. That year he painted the single “backdrop” for Milcha Sanchez-Scott’s Stone Wedding for the Latino Theatre Lab of Los Angeles Theatre Center. The work, so he told us, had been stored at that theater for all these years, and was rediscovered when director of the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Suzanne Isken called the Center.
     In 1990, Gronk did sets for four more plays, including Culture Clash’s The Mission and a production by the East West Players for Come Back, Little Sheba.
     The following years, he added several other new plays to his resume, including Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, a character who, once more, closely relates to La Tormenta, and a play by the noted Peruvian author, Mario Vargas Losa, performed at Los Angeles’ Chapel Court Theater, which won the Drama-Logue Award for set design. Numerous other plays followed before, in 1998, he began working with the noted director Peter Sellars, first for an adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Screens by Gloria Alvarez, Peter Galindo, Lynn Jeffries at Cornerstone Theater Company, for another collaboration between Gloria Alvarez and Sellars of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Historie du soldat. Ainadamar, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang and music by Osvaldo Golijov, which Sellars directed for The Santa Fe Opera and was later performed at Lincoln Center in New York; a Production of Henry Purcell’s The Indian Queen, this directed by Sellars for The Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre in Russia, followed.

      This new exhibition contains several full backdrops—which Gronk creates after extensive research into history and mythology, aiming for an emotional expressivity rather than a specific setting—along with models and video screenings of the sets. “Theater of Paint” also includes an entirely new work,  inspired by the book of surrealist-like poems by Chuck Rosenthal and Gail Wronsky which Gronk illustrated. The set also contains a decorated stage with cardboard props so that museum-goers can themselves become actors, playing out events of their own imaginations. Pablo snapped a picture of Howard and me with Gronk, appearing to my way of thinking, a bit like three monsters holding a kind of alien baby.
      The exhibition will also feature a performance of Tormenta Omnia on July 16, in both English and Spanish, a poetry reading by Rosenthal and Wronsky on July 24th, and conversation between Sellars and Gronk on August 6.