Droll Ontology

July 22, 2011   •   By Sesshu Foster

MUST'VE BEEN AROUND WINTER 1985 that I first saw an exhibit of Gronk’s notebooks and sketchbooks at MOCA’s Geffen Temporary Contemporary gallery in back of Union Church in Little Tokyo, by the parking structure for LAPD’s Parker Center — the second ugliest war veteran monument in the world, dedicated to the “Go for Broke” 442nd Japanese American Regiment — and a great big ficus planted by Buddhist Reverend Aoyama in 1920, gnarly roots cracking the pavement apart. I thought then that the exhibit was one of the best that the Museum of Contemporary Art ever mounted, and still think so, 25 years later. Not because MOCA almost never exhibits Chicano artists, and not because MOCA almost never exhibits cutting edge local artists, but simply because MOCA always “goes for the okey doke,” the easy call, safe famous dead artists like Rauschenberg, Warhol, etc., leaving it to UCLA’s Hammer or galleries like Tropico de Nopal to present fresh work. In 1985 I was shocked to see Gronk, clearly one of the most adept of the artists I considered vitally important growing up on the Eastside, and to see him intelligently displayed, with his exciting, terrific sketchbooks and journals open inside of glass cabinets — underneath, if memory serves, banners of images by Willie Herron. It was interesting that MOCA presented these idiosyncratic personal visions in ink and paper instead of some big rectangular paintings that could be labeled “real art [saleable product].”

Twenty years later, Gronk included sketches, drawings and similar artifacts in his 2005 Urban Narrative show at the Gallery 727 downtown, reminding me that, although many artists produce improvisatory drawings and sketches, Gronk’s have a particular quality, one that casually manifests the artist’s abiding interest in the temporal, the momentary, the ephemeral. Once on MOCA’s plaza, teens (my daughter among them) painted on a piece of Gronk’s sculpture, and he later applied the finishing touches himself — having stipulated, as with most of his installations, that the work be demolished or painted over afterwards. I talked with Gronk about the ephemeral aspect of his work while he waited for the kids to take their turns applying paint to his piece. As he put it in a 2007 interview with Marisela Norte in Bomb Magazine:

People like to hold onto life in many ways, but everything is transitory. This is it, right now. Youth doesn’t last forever; beauty doesn’t last forever; so appreciate it for the moment… Take your memory with you. You own memory by taking it inside you at a particular moment in time.

A Giant Claw obviates that concept of temporality by impressing these sketches into the black and white semi-permanence of print. What of it?


From Gronk, A Giant Claw


The title itself nods at one of those cheesy 1950s science fiction movies (movies that evidence a kind of special charm when compared to the charmless awful ones of the present); the first drawing in the book depicts the small silhouette of a “battleship” overshadowed by a giant bird claw, as in the 1957 movie. Like the laughably cheap improvised “special effects” of the movie, which included an obvious silly-looking papier-mâché marionette of a flying monster bird, the drawings and sketches in this book effect an “artless” improvised asymbolic immediacy, evoking in their casual vernacular the humor inherent in the existential absurdity of the necessity to improvise meaning in a flippantly arbitrary universe. There’s a droll ontology articulated by Gronk’s lines, which make meaning by poking fun at the apparent randomness of our own interior lives, where one thing might be followed literally by any other, where the present emotion might be followed by the emotional equivalent of a giant bird from outer space “17,000,000 years old!” attacking the world and laying it to waste. It may be 9-11, it may be the next stop ahead is your stop, it may be something entirely unexpected. Scratch that surface and sniff. From beneath the existentially absurdist humor arises the aroma of earth (rocks, terrain, the body), and in Gronk’s lines this dark laughter arises presently with a stoicism that feels both grim and glib, both gracefully adroit as outlined in its stark simple lines and chilly with annealed Dada attitude.

Which is to say that Gronk’s drawings delight and refract prismatic delight in the strangeness of existence, drawings where so many faces are blinded or occluded by objects, or a figure is punching himself in the face, or figures are headless or have a ring substituting for a head, a face replaced by a hook, a nose replaced by an overlarge pepper shaker, a face replaced by part of a human body. If Gronk draws in his sketchbooks to create new ideas for his many ongoing series of larger productions, we get germs of those ideas here. Also, here, emotions imagine themselves a moment before time averts them. Desire and despair smolder fulvous, pungent and sulphuric in Gronk’s black and white.