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Lofty Daydreams, Harsh Reality

FROM the time of Alexis de Tocqueville to our own, European observers have noted that Americans are self-created people. But this is a matter of degree; even among the self-created there is a hierarchy. The Los Angeles artist who calls himself Gronk has built his career on playing with his position as a poor Mexican-American boy who grew up in East Los Angeles and, like so many of his classmates, ended his education at 16.

He says his full name is Glugio Gronk Nicandro, but he signs his work with his middle name alone, and explains that it is an obscure Brazilian Indian verb meaning ``to fly,'' which his mother happened upon in a magazine article just before his birth.

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In this respect and in others, Gronk gives the impression of having invented himself, beginning as a child who escaped from poverty by drawing and by haunting the public library. Today he exhibits his paintings successfully all over the United States and Europe, but that was hardly his situation in the early 1970s, when he was one more uneducated Mexican teenager in East Los Angeles.

Together with three schoolmates, he formed a group called Asco, from the Spanish word for revulsion or nausea. At first he and his friends painted murals reflecting the racism, poverty, and oppression they saw around them.

That was eminently acceptable within the Mexican-American community, but it did not address the larger truth about Los Angeles, where contrasts between the lives of the rich and the poor were emphasized by the exhibitionistic character of Hollywood. As Asco members learned from the mass media, the Los Angeles rich were not hereditary aristocrats; on the contrary, they were strivers who had gone from imagining movie wealth to possessing it.

With that insight, Gronk and his friends began to mimic the life of the rich. They would set up a table and chairs on a highway traffic divider, enjoying a dinner party in an even more public manner than was customary among celebrities. If Asco did not immediately attract lifestyle columnists and photographers, the young people could photograph themselves and be noticed by passing motorists.

Because they could not afford expensive clothing, they made their own fancy dress from paper and other inexpensive materials. And if they had no access to the capital needed to make feature films, they could make ``no movies,'' documenting their imaginary productions with still photographs and awarding their own version of Oscars at a Denny's restaurant.

Asco eventually attracted the attention of the very people Gronk and his friends were trying at once to ridicule and to emulate. Having served various purposes, from neighborhood social activism to introducing its members to the avant-garde art world, Asco gradually broke up.

By the 1980s, it was time for Gronk to act like an adult, and his underground reputation made it possible for him to take up a career as a painter and a theater designer.

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ONE series of paintings was inspired by the maiden voyage of the Titanic - the largest ocean liner of its time - which sank in 1912, with much loss of life, after striking an iceberg. That voyage began as a festive event, an occasion for the rich of Europe and America to celebrate a future in which, thanks to engineering, human beings were going to achieve everything their hearts desired. And of course nothing could go wrong with that scenario: By 1912 both nature and human folly had been conquered.

Gronk's paintings often caricature the rich in a way that recalls German Expressionism and the so-called new realism of the 1920s. Like the earlier German artists, Gronk manages to blend social protest with an often-dreamlike pictorial style.

The single image Gronk uses again and again is that of a woman in a dark evening dress, always seen from the back. He calls her ``La Tormenta'' (Spanish for ``the storm'' or ``the tempest''). She has appeared in so many paintings that some observers conjecture that she is Gronk's alter ego.

Although he has been quoted as saying that ``she's young, she's beautiful, she's rich, and she doesn't know who she is,'' he has also described her as a representation of women's strength, modeled on his mother and his aunts. By now she has become an enigmatic figure, whose full variety of meanings the artist himself may not understand.

In conversation, he says the temporality of human life is one of his major themes, an idea expressed in his Titanic series and in a more recent series about hotels. Life is like hotels, he once explained to an interviewer. ``We check in, and we check out, and we never seem to get the hang of it. It's important that we get the gist of things and see things and enjoy them for that moment.''

In the downtown Los Angeles neighborhood where he lives, such names as ``Grand Hotel'' and ``Hotel Senator'' contrive to suggest dignity and even opulence. The contrast between lofty daydreams and bleak reality offers him a ready-made occasion to explore the theme of poverty masquerading as wealth, which informed many of his early performance works and still seems to fascinate him.

Gronk's paintings are inspired at least as much by memories of old movies as they are by contemporary life. He seems exquisitely attuned to mass-media sensibility, in which ``B'' movies of yesteryear, glamorous lifestyle reporting, and the real life of the streets combine to form a new multimedia reality in viewers' minds.

He avoids looking upon his own works as precious objects. Many of the neighborhood murals he painted during the 1970s have been destroyed or defaced in whole or in part. Today he paints murals in art museums with the understanding that they will be painted over at the end of his exhibition. Like his early performances, he offers the murals to those few people who happen to see them during a short period of time.

HE does smaller paintings on wood, and at a recent news conference he emphasized his less-than-respectful attitude by going from painting to painting, knocking on the surface of each, as if on a series of doors.

In discussing his work, he speaks of his paintings as if they were quick reactions to some fleeting image that had arisen in his mind. Like so many artists of recent decades, he seems to be making sketches to illustrate an idea rather than trying to produce finely crafted objects.

More than most, however, Gronk gives the impression that he knows he was a throwaway person who grew up in a throwaway culture and so found it appropriate to produce seemingly transient artworks. If he earns a lasting place in art history, it will be for creating art that manages to find beauty hidden under the tinsel-covered surfaces of Los Angeles.

* `!Gronk! A Living Survey, 1973-1993,' a 20-year retrospective of paintings, theater designs, and work in other media will be on view at The Mexican Museum, in San Francisco, through Nov. 17.

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