Monday, March 26, 2007

Biography adds to understanding of Chicano art

Gronk (UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press) by Max Benavidez

Book Review by Daniel A. Olivas

In recent years, Chicano art has received some of the respect long denied it by museums, critics and educators.

This did not happen without such diverse supporters as comedian Cheech Marin and Gary D. Keller, director of Bilingual Review/Press at Arizona State University. Through the publication of handsome, well-annotated books and the preparation of traveling exhibitions, they and others have encouraged this evolution of attitude and opinion.

Such advocacy continues. In 2002, the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press established the book project "A Ver: Revisioning Art History," billed as the only series on Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and other U.S.-based Latino artists. The center's director, Chon Noriega, edits the series, which is distributed by the University of Minnesota Press.

The first book in the series is Gronk ($24.95 paperback; $60 hardcover with documentary DVD), a biography of the artist of that name by Max Benavidez, a Los Angeles writer and scholar. Through Benavidez's well-researched text, generously illustrated by Gronk's art and photographs from the artist's life, we come to understand not only the importance of his art but also the personal and historical events that inform his artistic vision.

Gronk was born in 1954 and grew up in East Los Angeles. Benavidez notes that this predominantly Mexican-American community was "a place literally and figuratively outside the mainstream." Residents suffered from government neglect, poverty, gang violence and drug abuse.

In this setting, Gronk was further marginalized when his father abandoned the family. Gronk was often left unattended at a young age because his mother had to work.

Eventually, he discovered the public library and spent countless hours there, reading book after book, moving alphabetically through the shelves. When a librarian learned of Gronk's reading plan, she sternly but wisely told him to "start with the Greeks and then work your way up to the present."

In addition to books, Gronk fell in love with movies and television shows of all genres and quality.

As Gronk moved into adolescence, he still felt like an outsider, in part because he was gay. Benavidez writes that during this period of self-discovery, Gronk became such a master of reinvention that questions still linger about his biographical details. While Gronk says his full name is Glugio Gronk Nicandro, Benavidez finds conflicting evidence regarding even this seemingly simple element of Gronk's identity.

In due course, Gronk gravitated toward like-minded young people as he began to develop as a playwright, actor, filmmaker and artist. He helped form Asco, a group of "self-styled misfits and cultural radicals" that originally included Harry Gamboa Jr., Patssi Valdez and Willie Herrón III. The late artist Jerry Dreva also had a major influence on Gronk's work.

Gronk eventually created his most famous image, the iconic "La Tormenta," who is always depicted facing away from the viewer. La Tormenta wears long black gloves and a matching gown that plunges in a deep "V" down her back. As Benavidez notes, La Tormenta can be seen as Gronk's "glamorously stylish alter ego" who is "central to his artistic arsenal, that serves as a symbolic counterpoint of an 'authentic,' stable sexual identity."

The political turmoil of the times also influenced Gronk's work. For example, the powerful "Black and White Mural" (a collaboration with fellow Asco member Herrón) was inspired by the 1970 Chicano Moratorium, a national protest against the Vietnam War. One of the more potent images depicted in the mural is the infamous killing of reporter Rubén Salazar by a sheriff's deputy who needlessly fired two 10-inch tear-gas projectiles through a curtain into the Silver Dollar Café in East Los Angeles.

Benavidez offers a riveting, clear-eyed and contextualized midcareer examination of Gronk's development not only as an artist but also as a person.

For more information on this exciting and much-needed book series, visit

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times on Sunday, March 25, 2007.]

1 comment:

Monica said...

Among all the art works, i really like some of the famous oil reproduction paintings done by Vietnam artists