Tucson artist Brooke Grucella combines graffiti, comic books and surf culture into eye-popping art you could almost eat.
Somebody once said to Brooke Grucella: “Your colors are like taffy. You could almost eat it.”
The Tucson artist says it was the best compliment she ever got. “That’s how I feel about work that you like and admire. You just want to eat it. You want to ingest every detail of it. You’re enveloped.”
Enveloping people is what Brooke does, with art painted directly onto massive pieces of MDF, or sometimes onto walls, in a style that is somewhere along a continuum of graffiti, murals and comic books.
She picks up what she calls the “oops” house paint that people return to DIY stores, “because why let it go to waste, and sometimes those colors are really unusual”. She adds acrylic paint, and sometimes ink and Sharpie pen, and she draws on the influences of her southern California upbringing – surf culture, graffiti and comics – to produce pop-arty images, statements on community, sexuality and “breaking from the system”.
Brooke, a graduate of Arizona State University, didn’t entirely break from the system herself. She says her brother summed her up exactly when he once said: “In a family of rock stars you are a roadie.”
“I’m a nerd. I gravitate towards people on the fringes of the system, who do their own thing. But I don’t think I’m quite on the outside that I aspire to,” she says. Which is where the art comes in.
She grew up in Simi Valley, 45 minutes from Los Angeles, a place that prides itself on is clean air, good schools and low crime rates, famous for not much more than the fact it hosted the Rodney King trials.
On school field trips to L.A., she was drawn to the graffiti art around the canals and Venice Beach. “I was captivated by the fact that they were accessible to everybody,” says Brooke.
“My family were not a family to go to LACMA or MOCA or any of the other places that are so accessible.” So Brooke found art on walls, on the bottom of surfboards, and in comics. “We had a comic bookshop right up the way from our house. I read Image and the Marvel comics. I was enamored by Wolverine.”
The store had a section that displayed customers’ drawings, and it would always be a thrill for her when, aged 12 or 13, her copied drawings from the comics she was reading made it to that wall.
Now 33, her work is hitting walls all over, including galleries in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Tucson’s Obsidian Gallery.
It’s also at the new Session Yoga in Tucson’s BroadwayVillage, owned by Brooke’s friend Chelsea Lucas.
Chelsea and co-owner Kristin Horton commissioned Brooke to paint one of the walls in the studio. What emerged was a vivid show of some of the words that inspire the whole staff there: ‘happiness’, ‘music’, ‘vinyasa’, ‘connect’.
Brooke moved to Tucson in 2006 for a job as professor of practice and curator of the School of Art at the University of Arizona. She makes time in the evenings and the Friday afternoons she gets off early from work to paint almost every day, in the half of her garage that she has turned into a studio. She prefers painting huge pieces; the space frees her up to have more fun, she says. And she favors painting directly onto MDF than onto canvas. “Sometimes I leave the wood exposed and sometimes there are scratch marks. That creates texture.”
In a show she takes part in next week at Legend City Studios in Phoenix, she has deliberately torn parts of the MDF and folded it into the work itself.
There is a “dark humor” to her pieces, she says. When commissioned by the Art Whino Gallery in Washington D.C. to do the 8ft by 20ft piece shown on our home page, she was asked to come up with something happy and lively. Sponsors of the show were SoBe and Vitamin Water. She says she had trouble, not just with the happiness element of it, but being told what to do. “To be forced into a kind of theme was the biggest challenge.”
The result was a painting inspired by the song ‘You Should be Dancing’ by the Bee Gees. “Yeah well, my taste in music is eclectic,” she laughs.