Pop Culture
Jan 18, 2011, 04:47AM

The Muralist of Venice

An interview with legendary street artist R. Cronk.

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When I moved to Venice Beach a few years ago and started wandering around, I was immediately struck by the collection of colorful murals that sprouted out of every wall, alleyway and crevice. Some were treatises on the quirky local populace (Jim Morrison and Dennis Hopper, George Carlin and Robert Downey Jr. are noted residents) others absurdist, sun-kissed musings straight out of the bohemian, psychedelic street art scene that has prospered here since Abbot Kinney, the tobacco baron turned conservationist and developer, created his utopian “Venice of America” on abandoned marsh-land adjacent to the then-tiny beach town of Santa Monica in 1905. An avid traveler, Kinney had been smitten by Italy and its culture and hoped his re-imagined Venice, (called “Ocean Park” till 1911) would be the future cultural hub of the west—bringing learning, luxury and economic might to an area that since its handover from the Spanish, had remained a handful of backwater fishing towns.  

Mostly out of pocket, Kinney built the entire town around a gleaming network of winding canals, imported real gondolas and gondoliers, installed artists and prominent lecturers to educate the citizens, built a steam engine and trolley system to bring in out-of-towners (one must admit that public transport at the turn of the 20th century was infinitely better in LA than it is now), and built a world class amusement pier complex complete with freak shows, ballrooms, concert halls, roller coasters, race tracks, water parks, cafés, arcades, cottages, hotels and resorts. The project was profitable—well, until Prohibition punched out much of the fun. Kinney even had the first lit airport in the country built nearby.

While the rowdy wood pier complexes burned down time and again and the city was forced to consolidate the canals to just the remaining few blocks and bridges (though still quite beautiful indeed), if you walk around the roughly two-and-a-half mile “boardwalk” or promenade today, the bohemian, handmade vibe still remains and much of that is thanks to the colorful murals, graffiti and street art that line much of the area. Molting every few years (or every few days, depending where you are), the walls, storefronts and side-street walls offer a flexing rainbow-skin of the local artistic landscape.

But there are a series of murals and wall paintings that don’t get covered over with the years, and unlike most things in Venice, seem to stand the test of time. Look at the bottom corner of these handful of murals—if you’ve ever walked around here, you’ve seen them—from Jim Morrison peering on that blue apartment wall just past Winward Ave, to the massive facades on the Speedway and the boardwalk—you’ll noticed an airbrushed name ties them all together: R. Cronk.

I caught up with the nomadic artist after he was up on a mini-crane finishing a long day touching up what could be his masterpiece: “Venice Reconstituted”—a block long ode to Venice and the characters who live here. Eschewing what could have been a promising gallery career, Venice has been Rip Cronk’s canvas for over 30 years—and in conversation it was clear that the eccentric still-passionate 64-year-old artist still prefers the public “bonding” experience of mural art over the more erudite or respected museum or studio experience, even if it means working long hours (or months) for little or no remuneration. We sat in Danny’s Restaurant, which is inside the building that “Reconstituted” is on—and features, not surprisingly, another sprawling colorful Cronk painting.

(Photos by the author can be found here.)

Splice Today: So, when did you start the kind of mural art that become your specialty?

R. Cronk: Is that the kind of general questions you’re going to ask?

ST: I might start general.

RC: Okay. [Laughs] I have a master’s in fine art from the University of New Mexico. When I got out, I found that I wasn’t really of the right personality to pursue galleries too much—they require staying in one place and developing a market—and really they are looking for work that sells and I’d be out there only doing studio art. I got my first opportunity to do my first mural when I was living in Hawaii and recognized immediately that it allowed me to have an impact directly with the people—you know, a large broad audience as opposed to a gallery audience who was already coming there looking for it. And I also liked how it allowed me to work in a scale that could compete with anything else that’s visual—almost everything in our lives that is visual is commercial—like some of those billboards—and I can do art that has just as much impact as anything else like that.

ST: Were you inspired by certain artists who worked in large public forums like Diego Rivera, or did you sort of forge your own path?

RC: No, I’ve told people before and it’s basically true, I mean I have a minor in art history so I studied what’s out there, but I was always arrogantly following my own muse and figured everybody else didn’t know what they were doing. [Laughs]

ST: Let’s focus on the Venice stuff for a second since that’s where we are. How many of your wall installations are there currently visible in Venice right now? 

RC: Not sure. Maybe eight. I’d have to add them up.

ST: About eight—I know they span from at least 1980—do they go back more than 30 years?

RC: The first mural I had in Venice was in 1979 or 1980 and it was “Venice On The Halfshell”—it was painted on panels, it was on the Venice Pavilion, it was taken down in ’89 and refurbished and now it’s at the Venice city offices. And when they took that down I put up a mural that was out here called “Venice Reconstituted” in ’89 and that lasted until this year when I started repainting it.

ST: There’s obviously a pretty big risk of defamation or general graffiti going over your work due to its public nature—who monitors the upkeep of these murals? 

RC: Me.

ST: They do seem to hold up remarkably well, considering the rather … expressive nature of many Venice locals.

RC: This one out here (“Venice Reconstituted”) got almost completely destroyed because it’s pretty much right on the path to the Venice graffiti wall (city-regulated spot on the beach where you can buy a permit and try out your designs) which is sort of a cultural event in itself—so this wall got trashed but … my murals in general don’t get hit. If they do get hit, someone might sign their signature next to my name like they are signing the painting—but I have no complaints really. If you have all these people go by and they get hit maybe once or twice a year, it’s not too bad, that’s actually a lot of respect. Then I go in and clean them up.

ST: I think folks respect them because these murals have become sort of cultural icons of Venice and this area—pretty cool that you are still around to monitor them all. You have other murals across the country or mostly in California?

RC: Yeah, well I put up a suite of them in Hawaii in the late 1970s, I put a suite of them up in Switzerland in the mid-1990s and in Venice I put the first one up in ’79, another big group in ’90, and from around ‘95 to the present I’ve been putting up new ones at the rate of about one every one or two years.

ST: How do you plan a new work? You get inspired by the local site or—?

RC: Right. If you look at my work you’ll notice that they’re all quite different, there’s a lot of different looks and the reason for that is I’m not really obligated towards a particular style, I have a broad background and have done all types of things. What I’m interested in is letting the site itself dictate what goes in the mural, so I don’t go in with a preset idea, I have notebooks filled with preset ideas…I’ve never used any of them. [Laughs] When I go to a wall, the people are involved, the people who are going to walk by the mural and the size and shape of the wall and where you stand to look at it—all these things factor in. My main goal each time, is to create an icon of the community, of the location itself, so I’m trying to find a way to assimilate the spirit of the location.

ST: Sounds about right. 

RC: Sounds groovy, right?

ST: One of my main questions was—

RC: [To a friend who walks in] Hey, I ordered a beer—if you want one, might be best to go around and get it. Okay.

ST: Can you describe the materials you use typically?

RC: Sure. I found that the paint I have the most success with doing these murals is high-quality latex house paint. I found a clear primer that I use but these are all easily accessible, commercial products, I don’t put anything over the mural except a clear coat of this latex or acrylic [spray]. There’s nothing too scientific to it.

ST: It’s like … painting a house.

RC: That’s right, pretty much like painting a house except that most of the articulated shapes are done with an airbrush.

ST: Did you want to do art from a young age or did you get inspired later?

RC: No, I was always the school artist—from when I was about seven years old. My picture of Santa Claus in third grade was put up in the lobby—I was always that guy in school. I would try and do other things but frankly, the art was too easy for me—I’d have trouble in a class and do a portrait of Thomas Paine and at least get a B in the class.

ST: Have you been able to make a decent enough living on the art alone?

RC: Oh no, you don’t really make any money. You sort of get to make a choice in the beginning. If I had followed the gallery scene and garnered an audience and developed that kind of venue … there are a lot of … well, not a lot … but there are successful artists who make a lot of money … maybe I have that potential, it’s possible. But you actually limit how much effect you can have on society and culture in general if you are a gallery artist. To me, I think I reach a much broader audience and can make more varied and wilder statements, just working between a business owner or a building owner and the community.

ST: Do people approach you from city organizations or is it mostly individuals in the community?

RC: Well, there’s a lot of government-style programs for muralists where you submit your idea or mock-up along with a lot of other artists … you do most of your footwork right there, your creative process …and then they pick one out of the 10 or 15 people and the chances are slim that it’s going to be you. And the people who are choosing which artist to use, they aren’t really familiar with how the mural is going to look on the wall when it’s done. I often go into an area and put up a mural, sometimes for nothing, and then let people more or less come to me. I’m not trying to get rich off them. I’m more interested in making sure I have an outside wall with a lot of exposure and not too much censorship on the idea. I’m more looking for opportunities rather than money.  

ST: Venice is one the best places for that I’d think.

RC: It’s a goldmine here. You have 10 million people a year who walk up and down the boardwalk—as I have the walls all covered in murals, it’s kind of like my gallery and I have 10 million people a year walking by and looking at them! Nowhere else can I even think of getting that kind of exposure. Plus you get all kinds of movies and TV and travelogues and stuff too [coming through]—the community here is real open to different ideas…allows me to have a lot of varying themes.

ST: If someone from a modern art museum approached you—would you consider doing an installation at LACMA or something like it?

RC: Oh, I’d love that. Actually I have a series of temporary murals meant to be painted on those kinds of walls for a show—and then painted over when the next show comes in. My interest as an artist is—well, modernism came to an end and the realization that came out of that was that there really wasn’t any absolutes in art, there was no real historical progression, and from then on, you have a lot of stylistic innovation, like it’s all in one and that’s how it should be. But for me, that kind of cultural event was happening right as I was getting out of graduate school [in the 1970s] and innovation sort of left the canvas for me, innovation became looking for new ways to interface the fine art context into the community—you’re creating culture by making it more readable to the viewer.

ST: Like?

RC: I’m continually looking for new ways of [forging] that relationship between art and community. I did this thing at the local high school, we took the high school students, dressed them up in period costumes, set them against a scene of the Grand Canal by Canaletto—their school logo is the gondolier—so you have a gondolier in the back pushing them along…you know, we had the graduating seniors floating down the Grand Canal in Italy—[I love that] kind of interplay. A wonderful match. There’s the one over here “The Venice Beach Chorus Line,” it’s a bunch of cartoon animals representing that broad mix of people that are in Venice and while they’re wild and esoteric, there’s a sense of camaraderie, they’re all kicking their legs up together…carries the flavor of Venice.

ST: Preserves the moment. What do you think of someone like Banksy … his stuff, which is here in LA too, has become like a cultural phenomenon, in Europe especially—they take the images in his murals on walls and put them on T-shirts and they’re everywhere, it’s almost become oversaturated—but everyone is becoming familiar with his work, which is pretty cool. It’s like high art … and then pop art … and then it’s on your backpack. 

RC: Sure, sure. I think it’s great.

ST: So you think the commercialization part of it can become part of the process? 

RC: For me personally, I’ve never been able to try and make money on it without losing the muse itself. If I try and make money on it I’m no longer focused on what I want to focus on. And I have no qualms about artists going out and becoming millionaires, you’re working the system … there you go. But it’s not me.

ST: But if it did happen to you … you’d be okay with it. 

RC: I’m not offended by money. [Laughs] Hell no.

ST: Each mural of yours seems to have a central character or focus—like the big blonde lady with the roller-skates in “Venice Reconstituted,” or the guy defacing the mural in “Hanging Venice” or Abbot Kinney [The Founder of Venice]. When your wheels start turning and it starts coming together in front of you, do you use certain people in your life like family or folks in the community as models? 

RC: It’s a bit more spontaneous. I don’t like to go in with preconceived notions. When I’m looking for a model, sometimes it will be someone I know, sometimes in the mural, like the one I’m painting now—I just take people in the community who I think belong in the mural, take a photograph of them and they go up there.

ST: Where’d you grow up?

RC: Um. [Long Pause]. I’m 63-64, somewhere in there. I’ve never lived anywhere longer than eight years. And that’s where I live now and I’m dying to get out of there—maybe that’s a bit strong, but I have all these horses up there so it’s hard to do.

ST: Horses? 

RC: Horses. In fact I’ve lived here three times, maybe it adds up to about eight years. I lived a dozen different places in Hawaii, I move around a lot. I moved around a lot when I was a kid, I guess it’s just sort of my nature.

ST: Army brat? 

RC: Nope. Well, my dad was in the army in the beginning but he was a TV person and we moved around. Fit me real well. I’ve done all kinds of things, dude. [Laughs]. I’ve lived in the jungle, lived in Switzerland, in a sailboat in the San Francisco bay, I lived on the beach in Florida, you know—I’ve lived in vans, in art studios … I’ve done all kinds of things.

ST: Your wife enjoys staying in one place though right? 

RC: Nope. We met in Hawaii and she had just jumped ship sailing in the South Seas, and was living the same wild lifestyle as I was so we were the perfect match. Our system is, what we do is, about every five years, we say, well … what do we want to do next? And we switch off choosing what to do next.

ST: Wow.

RC: Really it’s my turn to choose what we do next, but I’m waiting to figure out what to do with all those darn horses.

ST: So wait, you own these horses?

RC: I own about 10. This time last year I was up to like 19 horses.

ST: How did you get into that? 

RC: Just a lark. Back years ago I had worked on a dude ranch so I had the idea of getting some horses and when it was [my wife’s] turn to decide what to do, she said "Let’s move out into the country and get some horses," and I said, "Okay, let’s do it," and I went out there and set up a horse ranch.  

ST: You’ve grown roots, then.  

RC: We’re up there. Weed, CA. Very north end of the state, on the side of mount Shasta. I’m at 3500’. Tonight it’s going to be around 10 degrees. I come down to do the murals.

ST: Has anyone ever tried to stop you from doing a mural on a wall when you didn’t have permission? 

RC: Well … the stuff I do … it’s not really meant to be rude. I may do things that are surprising, but it’s just trying to integrate the community. This is America, there’s always going to be someone against you, but out of 100 people, one might be against it but I don’t usually have a problem.

ST: Do you think if more communities had iconic imagery that was connected with the people, it might give the community more of a solid identity—like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or something? It’s like if you didn’t have your murals…Venice wouldn’t be as cool. 

RC: It’s not my murals—it’s the concept of murals in general. Cultural icons are important. The Hollywood Sign, the Venice sign—they’ve become both historical and aesthetic…I forgot what I was saying.

ST: The Eiffel Tower … icons.

RC: I might need to finish my beer. [Laughs]. Mural art from the onset, its intention is to create a bonding art experience. Whether they like the mural or not, they recognize that it’s art and they gain a subjective aesthetic personal experience from watching it. And in the process, they sort of have a common bond with everyone [around them] that comes up to look at that same mural … in an odd sense, the mural is kind of radiating this message, that people can interpret as they go by and see it. It’s a bonding experience that can reach across economic social strata—it doesn’t matter if you’re an indigent or the building owner … you have a connection to it. It’s like [these murals] have this intention before they are even put up.

ST: Didn’t think about it that way. Any big projects on the way? Or are they top secret? 

RC: Yes … this project here is so big, I’m waiting to take a break. I’m three weeks into this [“Venice Reconstituted” revision]. Every day from dawn to dusk. There’s a big wall on the other side of this building … I have to step back a little bit and regain my sanity first … I made a joke about this the other day. Venice is like a cultural vortex … this is like, everything goes on, if you go down all the little side streets, every little house has writers or producers or artists in them. All kinds of famous artists are in the woodwork here, hidden. Enormous creative pool here.


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