Los Angeles

Gronk and James Bucalo, Morning Becomes Electricity

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)

When is a Mexican-American artist who makes paintings on walls not a muralist and why is Peter Plagens saying those terrible things about him? These were two of the questions examined in a convoluted cross-examination of painter/performance artist Gronk (Glugio Gronk Nicandro) during his performance Morning Becomes Electricity, 1985. The piece, written and performed by Gronk and James Bucalo, was actually a retrospective of Gronk’s work in the form of a trial in which his paintings, performances, and characters were placed on the stand and accused of committing “crimes” against art. The set included Gronk’s spectacular 300-foot-long black-and-white painting (which Gronk insisted during the performance was not a mural) untitled, 1985, which had been installed on a rear wall of the Museum for its summer survey exhibition of Los Angeles artists. Appearing in the painting was “Tormenta,” a woman wearing a deepV-back dress with her back to the viewer. This character has appeared in Gronk’s work regularly and was revealed in the performance to represent the artist himself, turning his back on the art world. During the three performances of Morning Becomes Electricity the painting was gradually altered by Bucalo and Gronk, with Bucalo stripping off lines of paint and canvas during the performances and Gronk filling them in with red paint, until the painting appeared to be tortured and bleeding. The figure of Tormenta was painted out of the piece, her cigarette left smoldering on the floor. The entire painting was finally destroyed by whitewash this past fall.

The treatment of this installation was typical of Gronk’s attitude, demonstrated throughout his 15-year art career, toward defacement as “reconstruction?’ Under cross-examination on the courtroom set by prosecutor Bucalo, Gronk admitted that, if given the opportunity, he would ”deface a Rothko or Kline,” and defended as creative acts the defacement of Guernica and Michelangelo’s Pietà. This exchange gave rise to speculation about the reverence with which art is imbued. Ironically, slides revealed that Gronk, as a member of the collective Asco (Spanish for nausea), had once graffitied the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, only to be “honored” there four years later (in 1974) with a show in which he exhibited photos of the same graffiti.

The trial addressed all of Gronk’s works, establishing ways in which their contents, characters, and imagery had been appropriated from other sources (films, ads, plays, paintings) and altered, parodied, ostensibly defaced. Accused finally of “decadence in art,” Gronk called ”Marie Antoinette“ to the stand, a frequent member of Gronk’s performance cast. ”Marie," a character created by cross-dressed actor Ruben Zamora, launched into a monologue that degenerated into stale drag-queen jokes.

The staging and script of Morning Becomes Electricity were intentionally chaotic, employing disruptions such as the appearance of an enormous pair of paper hands from Gronk’s play Striptease (1981) and streams of puns, jokes, and wordplays from Gronk and the witnesses in response to Bucalo’s questions. When asked about his influences, Gronk replied, “Bullwinkle and [Albert] Camus,” clearly a reference to a review of his installation by critic Peter Plagens in the L.A. Weekly (August 915), in which he dubbed it “sheer Bull-winkle, with a little brushwork thrown in. . . .[It is] one of the fluffiest pseudo-angry murals ever slapped up on a vertical surface:’ In this same review, Plagens went on to say that the presence of Gronk and Willie Herron in the MOCA exhibition wasn’t ”merely because both are Hispanic, but also because they’re (probably) really interesting guys who cut a wide swath at a studio visit or opening“ Similarly, Bucalo cautioned the audience ”not to be taken in by [Gronk’s] quaint tale of deprivation or by his charm or wit or imagination. This man’s whole career has been a calculated attempt to undermine seriousness in art.”

In his summation, Bucalo asked that Gronk be sentenced to “a life of hard labor painting festive murals in economically depressed ethnic neighborhoods.” In essence, this defamation was aimed at Gronk’s critics, such as Plagens, whose attack the artists saw as racist and an attempt to keep Gronk out of the serious avant-garde and ”in his place,” in the ghetto. In his closing statement Gronk defended not himself, but his work, which will outlast the artist as well as his personal reputation. While the performance needed paring down and more rehearsal time, its attacks on racism and tokenism were well placed and well spiced.

Linda Burnham