“I incorporate a lot of garbage and trash imagery because that’s the byproduct of our culture. When we all die, we’re leaving our garbage behind. It’s like when we find old pottery, or whatever, from ancient cultures. What will be said about us by whoever looks through our garbage someday?” says GMONIK, a 30-year-old San Diegan who has launched himself into life as a full-time painter after the cessation of his travels in China and the world at large.
GMONIK paints mostly on canvas now, but at first glance, his artwork contains some graffiti iconography. In the past, he dabbled in graffiti and wheatpaste — in part because the influence of street art became altogether pervasive, and in part because graffiti writers decorated the neighborhoods of his youth.
“I grew up around the the National City area, and Paradise Hills,” says the artist, describing his childhood in southeast San Diego’s heavily Asian and Pacific Islander neighborhoods. “I moved around during college. After that, I left San Diego. I was tired of staying in one place for a long period of time, so I left and went to Alaska. I worked all kinds of shitty jobs, and then realized I could spend my life working for somebody else fueling others' dreams, or I could become an artist and have whatever I make be representative of me and my life experience. I could try to make my mark in the world.
“I was doing fish processing and I figured I would have to live life and have experiences, just meet people and see what the world was, to really evaluate myself. That’s the other part of why I went to China, to see how the other side of the world lives, and to make my decisions about what the value of life is. One thing I experienced was seeing people in poverty living right next to rich people. In China, you’ll see these really poor people and then skyscrapers and millionaires walking right by. Here, that’s very secluded a lot of times. The rich live in certain areas, and poor people live in certain areas. There, it’s just a mishmash and you can see the juxtaposed view of life.”
The painter spent about three and a half years in China, off and on. He says, “I travelled back and forth. I was on a thirty day visa, so every month I had to leave China and come back. I went to Japan, Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines. I saw and did a variety of things that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to if I were here in America.
“The reason why I create the art that I create is that I think a lot of our society is based on consumerism without even thinking about the effort and the time, everything that goes into manufacturing and producing things that we would consider valuable. I try to be conscientous in my own life, basically to not spend more than I need, that’s the main objective. I mean, if you’re complaining, ‘I need a brand new car, when there are other people complaining about not having food, the perspective changes. Growing up in America, you’re programmed at a young age to want things, by commercials and advertising, and we have this idea of a self based on the things that surround us.”
GMONIK justly struggles with boiling down his entire philosophy on consumerism and global inequality to one pithy sentence, stating that “It’s hard to pin it down to one thing.” Encapsulating a worldview formed between experiences as diverse as Alaskan fish processing and Chinese urban slums isn’t an easy task. As it does for so many people, a galvanizing event catapulted GMONIK’s transition from idle observer of the world to would-be creative force and master of his own destiny.
“I had a friend who died in China,” he explains. “My group of friends went their separate ways after that, back to their own countries. It got depressing to stay in China, which is part of the reason that I came back. I couldn’t live there with that hovering around me. I wanted to start fresh all over again.”
More than anything else, that event cemented his decision to live as a full-time artist. Even so, it’s a hard road to walk, and GMONIK admits that he needs a little help when it comes to the business end of things.
“I’m not very good at making contacts, but my girlfriend pushes me to go and do interviews and events. I would just as easily say, ‘I don’t wanna do this stuff,’ and keep it simple. I’ll just make all the art that I can make. But she comes from the nonprofit world, and she brings the skills to help me build my career.”
The future of his career as a painter has options.
“I’ve got a lot of dirty ideas,” the artist laughs. “More raunchy stuff. It’s more of the art that I make for myself. I like to be playful with it.”
Those dirty ideas, whatever they may be, are on the back burner for now. Instead, GMONIK will work on creating and showing the paintings that reflect his post-China philosophy, as well as editing some of the many hours of video he brought back from China.
500 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
“I'm in a competition as a finalist for this RAW Natural Born Artists contest. There’s a bunch of different categories. They’re going to have the show at Fluxx downtown, and they’ll have an awards announcement. I also have a solo show next year at Thumbprint Gallery in La Jolla. It’ll be my second solo show with them. I go back and forth to LA, too. I recently painted a mural at RAW headquarters.”
And after that? GMONIK has given himself until age 50 to succeed as a painter, whatever that entails.