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September 6 - October 11, 2008 at L2kontemporary, Chinatown

by Shirle Gottlieb

“Mondogronk Speaking in Tulip,” 2008,
mixed medium on canvas, 72"x47".

“The Best of Times, The Worst of Times 1,”
2008, watercolor on paper, 17"x14".

“He Came First” (detail), 2008,
mixed medium on canvas, 65"x54".

“Untitled,” 2008, ink on paper.

Whether conscious of it or not, all artists borrow from the vast collection of their personal experiences. That includes an inner vision of everything they've ever seen or felt, read or learned, dreamed or desired, feared or suffered--in short, everything they've lived through, longed for, or rebelled against. The trick is the ability to pick and choose--to go inside and distill a lifetime of rich, unrelated stuff into visual imagery that communicates what the artist has in mind to those who see it.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but in tandem with the above: "the more viewers bring to any given work of art, the more they can take away from it." Still, the artwork comes first. The artist must have a clear concept of what he/she is trying to do and the technical skills to put that concept across. When creative imagination is added to the mix, these three elements can produce exciting results that capture attention.

I say this up front to make a point. The art community has been aware of the artist known as "Gronk" ever since he made waves with his early street murals. A strong, multi-talented voice in Southern California's multi-ethnic community, Gronk hit the ground running and has never looked back. Switching gears over the years with great ease, he has fearlessly produced innovative drawings, paintings, sculpture, an exciting animated film called "Gronk's BrainFlame," and a bevy of outstanding stage sets for leading theater companies across the country.

Who is Gronk anyway? Like some contemporary "Everyman," he has gained national attention, critical acclaim, and respect from his fellow artists, but his art is so versatile no one can peg him.

Now "A Tale of Two Rocks" comes along, and this rich, diverse, large-scale exhibit of his latest work has me tongue-tied. I know this is unusual for an art critic to admit; but there is so much to say I almost don't know where to start. Beginning with the title's allusion to "A Tale of Two Cities" (Dicken's masterpiece about the hardship of life in London and Paris during the French Revolution), there are so many references in this artist's mixed-media body of work, I was overwhelmed by what I saw, felt and experienced. It was apparent, immediately, that Gronk is well-informed with literature as well as art, music, and theater.

Take "The Best of Times, The Worst of Times" for example, a large series of watercolors in three different sizes. Surrounded by these multi-layered, all-over patterned, abstract works of rich color and crisp line drawings that leap off the paper, viewers might find themselves flooded with a free association of memories and feelings. Aside from the suggestion that war has brought havoc and destruction throughout history, there is Gronk's personal iconography. Consisting of layers of colorful, spontaneous, abstract scribbling, it relates back to the colorful street art and tagging he grew up with in East L.A. Also apparent are echoes of the familiar styles of many fine artists (i.e., Nicolaides, Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock, Picasso) who expressed their feelings  and moral outrage in powerful, abstract imagery.

In addition to the watercolors, there's a fascinating "Story Board" of pen and ink drawings on display. One of them (a modern parable) depicts two large rocks, each one balanced precariously on opposite sides of a steep precipice where the slightest move will send them both to oblivion. Another suggests the saga of life. From its very beginning billions of years ago (as amoebas and molecules) through various forms of evolution to modern man, they all float in the vast void of space and time. A third drawing alludes to the gigantic stone heads still standing on Easter Island, one of many unsolved mysteries in the world's pantheon of creation myths.

Just reading the titles of Gronk's paintings: "Mondogronk Speaking in Tulip" (72 X 47), "He Came First" (65 X 54), and "A Mild Form of Madness" (20 X 29), warns you that your brain will be challenged while your eyes are rewarded. Since all three works are crisp, clean, intriguing, boldly colored abstractions, viewers will have their own varied interpretations of what they represent.

Last but far from least, the one lone sculpture in the gallery is guaranteed to be a show-stopper. Working with papier mache over wire,  Gronk has constructed a life-size nude male, lying on his back in an excited state, with extended arms that hold a small transparent brain high up in the air.  Will he drop it or learn from it? After all of the mental, emotional, and visual stimulation in this exhibit, one can't help thinking ahead in anticipation of what Gronk will be up to next.