While designing set pieces for a Peter Sellars opera, artist Gronk created enough work to constitute a Santa Monica exhibit
By Michael Aushenker
Like the Picassos and the Modiglianis before him at the brasseries of 1920s Montparnasse, Gronk starts his day by walking a block from his home studio to his favorite café, meditates and sketches while nursing a cup of coffee, and then returns to his studio to attack his work — art that will export the stimuli and intangibles of his Los Angeles environs globally via the opera world.
“Ruins,” Gronk’s solo show at Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Santa Monica, debuts Saturday, featuring abstract paintings that are by-products of his decades-long association with Peter Sellars — preliminary explorations for the iconic theater director’s adaptation of the Henry Purcell opera, “The Indian Queen,” based on Sir Robert Howard’s 1664 play chronicling rifts within the Peruvian and Mexican hierarchies prior to the Spanish invasion.
“I haven’t had a show on the Westside in a while,” Gronk said, without a trace of understatement. In fact, the painter, who draws as much inspiration from master German Expressionists such as Max Beckmann as he does from his own Chicano background, has been busy applying his talents toward creating set pieces for one Sellars production after another since the two began collaborating in 1995.
When Sellars first proposed they work together on “The Screams,” Gronk said he remarked how the piece was “so long, so many people in it,” to which Sellars reacted, “‘Yeah, that’s why I’m doing it!’”
That collaboration set the stage for several more operas, including 2005’s “Ainadarma,” with its David Henry Wang libretto (the accompanying CD won two Grammys), as well as Vivaldi’s “Griselda.”
“He’s a brilliant man,” Gronk said of Sellars, “and you learn so much from each thing you do and sometimes you go into areas you never thought you would.”
Born Glugio Nicandro in East Los Angeles, Gronk doodled on a cup at his beloved Syrup Café on Spring Street last Friday morning while discussing the 16 works on display at the Bergamot Station-based Lora Schlesinger Gallery.
For “Ruins,” Gronk has created “actual pieces that can hold their own,” he said. “It’s almost like sentence-making, a haiku, a codex” spawned while forging his “Indian Queen” battle plan.
“When you say yes to working with Peter, all of a sudden you’re spending a year doing research. He gives you a lot of leeway to come up with things. The guiding line is that you have to do the research.”
For “Indian Queen,” Gronk picked apart English history circa the opera’s 1600s origin, discovering “the Great Fire of London had just taken place, the Plague is going on.”
Essentially, Gronk tends to be a production’s first link, his palette setting the tone.
“Peter comes along, looks at what I’m making and figures out how to stage it,” Gronk said. “In the case of opera, the set comes first — then costumes and the rest.”
Gronk has yet to contemplate the next Sellars project because “Indian Queen” continues to travel from Perm, Russia, to Madrid and now to England, and Sellars recently decided he needed yet another element.
“Right now in my studio is the floor of an opera house in London. I have to go up on the roof to paint these [independent works],” he said. “It’s not as if I have a crew or a team. Every brushstroke that goes into the set is mine.”
Between operas, Gronk, whose work was spotlighted by MOCA in 1985 and LACMA in 2004, still enjoys traveling and transmitting his experience and wisdom to students, from elementary to university level.
However, L.A. remains home. For 25 years, Gronk has worked out of the same studio, taking in the sights and vibrations of the city’s center, expanding his visual lexicon. When he moved into his building there were just three people in it; now there are 30 units.
“You can come to Spring Street, but a block away is Broadway and you may not go there. Within that range, you have many different people. Broadway is a Third World nation, just on that one street,” he said, likening the atmosphere to movies “Blade Runner” and “Fellinis Satryicon.”
Such dense parcels of humanity feed Gronk’s imagination.
“I don’t drive. I’m someone who uses public transportation, just like Peter Sellars. You’re taking information on the way, the way things look on the street, and you’re going to use that, mixing it all up with historical information.”
There’s the push and pull of gentrification, but “change is a part of the city. To me it’s not just whole buildings that make up a city, to me, it’s the people.”
Cry as people might about another chain popping up, “young people who work at Starbucks are usually going to college,” he said. Conversely, there’s been “an abundance of dogs” in recent years, walking the hot cement, no doubt forced out as more condos means a penchant for house cats.
“Where does a dog go?” he asked rhetorically.
All of this shapes Gronk’s work, whether accompanied by tenors and sopranos at the Perm Opera House or hanging inside a Bergamot Station gallery.
“You pull from all the different sources, make sense out of it. Or make nonsense out of it. It’s a constant looking at the world you live in,” he said.
“Ruins” runs through Oct. 18 at Lora Schlesinger Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave. T3, Santa Monica. An opening reception takes place from 4:30 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 13. (310) 828-1133; loraschlesinger.com