Agitpop Artist Re-Emerges After 10-Year Absence
Posted by Joshua Yospyn | February 16, 2011
|Groover Cleveland with one of his “We’re All Immigrants” paintings (acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, 36 x 48 inches). He also has produced a silkscreen print edition of this image (see below). Given the sensitive political work Groover does for his day job, he doesn’t like to be photographed, and he rarely attends his own openings.|
Worn Magazine invited Elliott Negin, an award-winning illustrator and designer, to interview the Mid City Artist Groover Cleveland just before Groover’s next group show, which opens Friday, February 18, at garmentDISTRICT, a temporary retail and arts space on the corner of 7th Street and New York Avenue NW (1005 7th St. NW), across the street from the Convention Center. The opening of the show, which features the work of 16 Washington area artists, will run from 6 to 10 p.m. The exhibit is open through March 20.
Elliott first met Groover 20 years ago when they both participated in a show on censorship at the District of Columbia Art Center (DCAC). It was two years after the Corcoran’s notorious cancellation of a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective, but the scandal it triggered still reverberated in the Washington art community.
Elliott — at the time a City Paper art critic — exhibited a small pen-and-ink drawing of a man blindfolded and gagged with an American flag. Groover, meanwhile, showed what was to become his most celebrated painting to date: “The Treachery of Images (Ce n’est pas un pénis)” a homage to the surrealist painter René Magritte.
Given the recent incident at the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” show, the issue DCAC addressed in 1991 is still painfully relevant.
Elliott and Groover crossed paths again when they collaborated in a two-man show, “Alter Ego,” in February 2008 at District Fine Arts, a now-defunct Georgetown gallery. Elliott exhibited two dozen drawings from his days as an illustrator, and Groover exhibited a dozen paintings and a handful of silkscreen prints.
EN: Thanks for taking the time to talk to Worn Magazine. Before we talk about your work, why don’t you tell us about your name, Groover Cleveland. What’s that all about?
GC: Groover is the love child of Robert Indiana and Judy Chicago. They inspired me to adopt my nom de guerre. Like them, I’m from the Midwest and I took the name of my birthplace. And like them, a lot of my work has a political edge. I call it “Agitpop.” Groover is obviously a play on Grover Cleveland, who, as it turns out, was distantly related to Moses Cleaveland, the founder of Cleveland, Ohio.
Robert Indiana is a Pop artist who became prominent in the early 1960s. He’s probably best known for his “LOVE” image, which the Post Office put on a stamp. Indiana has referred to himself an American painter of signs. I can relate to that. My most recent series, “We’re All Immigrants,” is based on an actual highway sign. I’m showing two paintings and a silkscreen from that series at the garmentDISTRICT show.
Judy Chicago is a feminist artist who took the name of her hometown instead of going by her husband’s name or her father’s name. She’s best known for a multimedia installation piece called “The Dinner Party,” which celebrates women in history. It’s now at the Brooklyn Museum.
EN: The plates in “The Dinner Party” feature vaginas of famous women. You’re best known for a painting of a penis. Tell us a little about that.
|In Groover Cleveland’s studio: Left: Groover Cleveland: “Manholism I” (silkscreen print, 10 x 12 ½ inches). Right: Groover Cleveland: “The Treachery of Images (Ce n’est pas un pénis)” (acrylic on canvas, 30 x 36 inches). Bottom right: Rusty, one of Groover’s studio assistants.|
GC: I studied Dada and Surrealism when I was in college, and I’m a big fan of René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist. One of his most famous paintings is an image of a smoking pipe floating on a flat beige background. Underneath the pipe, he wrote: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe.
|Groover Cleveland: “Ron and Nancy: A Presidential Portrait” (acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 inches).|
I can’t remember what prompted me to channel Magritte in a Pop style, but I did it right after the Mapplethorpe show controversy. It just seemed fitting. I was painting some canvases at the time with a dark, blue-gray ground, like a blackboard, which made the colors on top of it jump. They look like black light posters. One of my favorites is “Ron and Nancy: A Presidential Portrait,” which is perfect for Reagan’s 100th birthday. Anyway, I first showed the “not a penis painting” at an exhibit on censorship at DCAC in 1991, but it didn’t get much attention. A few years later, in late 1993, I heard about a show that was about to open at Clark and Company Gallery in Georgetown called “True Phallacy: The Myth of Male Power.”
EN: I remember the show. It opened right after Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis. Great timing.
GC: Well, it was in December, about six months later, but close enough. Camille Paglia’s girlfriend, Alison Maddex, curated the show. When I found out about it, I called the gallery and told Alison I wanted to come over and show her my penis, and she said: “Bring it on over!” I threw the painting in my car and drove it to the gallery. She loved it. Camille was at the opening and said a few words, and Channel 4 from London was there to shoot a documentary on phallic art featuring her. Years later I found out that “pipe” is French slang for blow job. That made my image even more appropriate! In any case, the painting got a nice mention in the Washington Post and Penthouse featured it on the opening spread of a nine-page story on the show.
EN: That gave you a good excuse to buy the magazine. Did the Post run a photo, too?
GC: Uh, no. At the time the Post wouldn’t even print the name of the Butthole Surfers without putting asterisks in the first word.
The Post art critic, Paul Richard, wrote that I was paying “a dual debt” to Keith Haring and René Magritte. Magritte yes, but Haring, no. I love Haring’s work, and I met him in the mid-1980s, but he wasn’t the first artist to use radiating lines. Cartoonists have been using them for years. I got my start drawing cartoons for school newspapers, and I used them long before I had ever heard of Keith Haring.
|Elliott Negin: “Getting Less from the Feds” (pen and ink, 6 ½ x 7 inches). Elliott did this illustration years ago, but with the Obama administration poised to slash government spending, it is still relevant. Note the book just to the left of the drawing is a biography of André Breton, the founder of Surrealism.|
EN: So you started out as a cartoonist?
GC: Yeah. When I was in elementary school I drew a cartoon strip for the school newsletter. Then in junior high and high school I did editorial cartoons and strips for the school papers. I learned how to do silkscreening back then, too. Then I did strips for my college paper and majored in art, mostly painting. Like you, I worked as an illustrator for a while, and did some graphic design work, too. Most of the illustrators I knew had to get out of the business. Computers and stock art killed it off, and it’s pretty much out of style these days.
|Elliott Negin: “Censorship” (pen and ink, 2 ½ x 3 ½). Elliott exhibited this drawing at the DCAC show on censorship in 1991.|
EN: What other artists do you like besides Magritte?
GC: I grew up in the ’60s, so I saw a lot of Pop Art. Indiana, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Segal. And “pre-Pop” artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. I later studied Dada and Surrealism. Pop had its roots in Dada. Marcel Duchamp was a major influence on the art world then, and he still is today. I also saw a lot of Dali’s work growing up. The Dali museum that is now in St. Petersburg was in the Cleveland suburbs then. We went there a lot.
I love the San Francisco rock poster artists and I started buying their work when I was a kid. Victor Moscoso, who studied with Josef Albers at Yale, is one of my favorites. All my friends and I read underground comics, especially Robert Crumb’s stuff, and Mad magazine. Then there’s Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, who started Pushpin Studios; Saul Steinberg, who drew for the New Yorker; and Pat Oliphant, the great editorial cartoonist.
EN: How about more contemporary artists?
GC: Sure. Haring, Basquiat, Banksy, Roger Brown, Robby Conal, Jim Nutt, Brad Holland, Mark Fisher. I could go on, but I’ll spare you.
|Groover Cleveland: “Urban Forest” (acrylic on canvas, 16 ½ x 62 inches).|
|Groover Cleveland: “We’re All Immigrants” (silkscreen print, 15 x 20 inches, edition of 30). Groover takes what has become an iconic image and gives it an original twist. The image, a silhouette of a mother, father and daughter running, was originally created for a San Diego highway safety sign warning drivers to watch for people darting across the road to evade border police. The issue is a personal one for Groover. His paternal and maternal grandparents emigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, from Russia and Austria respectively to flee religious persecution.|
EN: You came to Washington more to do political work and journalism than art.
GC: I’ve always tried to tie them all together. It surprises me that there aren’t more artists in D.C. doing political art given this town is all about politics.
My interest in political art was piqued when I was in elementary school. The school librarian knew I liked to draw, so she handed me a biography of Thomas Nast, the father of the American cartoon. He drew for Harper’s Weekly after the Civil War and helped bring down Boss Tweed, the corrupt head of Tammany Hall who controlled New York City. That made a big impression on me: Art can be a political force.
Years later I had the opportunity to work with a relatively unknown artist in Cleveland — Marvin Smith. He was a real live flesh-and-blood role model. I spent six weeks with him during my last semester in high school. He taught at the Cooper School of Art in Cleveland and was an antiwar activist. He got arrested for demonstrating in the streets and pasted his anti-war posters on buildings around town. I have one of them framed in my office. He taught me how to make silkscreen prints. I didn’t have the opportunity to do silkscreening again until I took a digital silkscreen class at the Corcoran. Now I make prints at Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring.
|In Groover Cleveland’s studio (unless identified otherwise, all works by Groover Cleveland): Far left: “Eye on America” (see below). Left top: “Lobbyist” (acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 inches (after Thomas Nast)). Left bottom: Elliott Negin: “Security” (pen and ink, 8 x 6 inches). Center: “One Meatball” (acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches). Right top: “Christmas Cactus” (acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 inches). Bottom right: “Plate o’ Bones” (silkscreen print, 5 x 8 ¾ inches, edition of 15).|
EN: It was really a treat to show with you three years ago in the “Alter Ego” exhibit. But I didn’t see your work for a while before that show. You were showing pretty consistently in the early to mid-1990s, but then after 1996, you disappeared. I guess we now could call you a re-emerging artist.
GC: Re-emerging artist. I like that. Like Rip Van Winkle. Anyway, that’s true. I didn’t show anything for more than 10 years. I became a conceptual artist.
EN: You became a conceptual artist?
GC: Yeah. I thought about doing art, but I didn’t actually do any.
GC: It’s a long story. Suffice it to say that I hit a rough patch workwise in the mid-1990s, and then I had to deal with some emotionally draining family obligations. Except for a silkscreen class I took at the Corcoran in 2003, I didn’t do any art again until late 2007. I’m still not very prolific – I have a very demanding day job — but I’m excited about painting and making prints again and I’m producing work I feel good about.
EN: Well, it’s good to see that you’re back doing art. Perhaps we could do another two-man show sometime.
GC: Given you stopped doing illustrations a long time ago, I don’t think that’s going to happen. You have nothing to show, El.
EN: That’s not a problem, Groove. I could just call myself a conceptual artist!
|Groover Cleveland: “Eye on America” (acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, 36 x 48 inches). Groover first exhibited this painting in a September 2008 group show titled “Under Surveillance” at the Nevin Kelly Gallery. “After years of documented abuses by law enforcement authorities spying on law-abiding citizens,” Groover explains, “we are now faced with the proliferation of massive surveillance camera networks in major cities across the country. By the fall of 2008, for example, the District of Columbia had installed some 5,600 closed-circuit surveillance cameras around the city – about three times the number it had in 2001. There are no safeguards in place to ensure that they will not be abused.”|
Photo Credits: Joshua Yospyn unless otherwise noted (please ask permission to use our images)