A little bit tongue in cheek, a little bit whacked-out, and always signed with a biting sense of humor, Kent Grosswiler’s art is relatively new to Columbus, though his signature style of folk surrealism has netted him numerous commissions, positions at local exhibitions, and perhaps most prestigious, a spot in Columbus’s own Artist’s Wrestling League.
As described by Grosswiler, the AWL is a “big-time wrestling themed-live painting competition,” and at the League’s most recent event, Grosswiler was not the friendly, thoughtful guy I had come to know over a series of interviews. Instead, he had transformed into his AWL persona, Crabby Jack, flaunting his tunic of permanent ink and his slicked-back mohawk.
“I was inspired by Wes, the villain in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. The guy with the chaps, and half a football pad, and all the feathers,” Grosswiler said. “I mean, he’s one of my favorite movie characters of all time. I’ve got him tattooed on my leg.”
Two easels stood in the makeshift wrestling ring, which was roped in by festive lights. As Grosswiler and his tag team partner Jimmy “Wildman” Folk sized up their opponents, the striped referee solicited subjects from the audience to be painted, eventually pulling a brave soul from the crowd who volunteered to be a live model.
“Yeah, he was part of the crowd,” said a grinning Grosswiler about the man who was soon to be shirtless and covered in orange paint. “What a great sport he was!” After Grosswiler gleefully broke a sugar glass bottle on one of his opponent’s heads, the referee marched up to the ring and asked, “Which one of you is cheating? Was it you?”
After a suitably dramatic pause, Crabby Jack gave a sinister smile and sneered, “Always.”
The Artist’s Wrestling League was the brainchild of Columbus artist W. Ralph Walters, who was inspired to create the organization when he was challenged by a fellow artist to a publicly judged “art battle.”
“And then he decides that whoever wins gets to hit the other person with a folding chair. And I thought at first, clearly this guy’s crazy, this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Walters said. “And then I start thinking about it, and it was actually genius.”
Since its inception in March of 2015, AWL events have drawn new fans into the Columbus art scene, people who might otherwise only be tangentially interested in visual art. “It’s not that non-art fans don’t like art—they might just not seek it out,” Walters said. “You have to lead them to the show via the spectacle.”
Grosswiler himself has only been painting “seriously” for five years and credits fellow Columbus artist and longtime friend Rob Jones as “the guy who tricked/taught me how to paint.”
After an awkward first attempt that Jones called “a cross between Iggy Pop and Carol Burnett,” Grosswiler progressed by leaps and bounds. “It was amazing how quick he caught on and just ran with it.” An accomplished painter himself, Jones had heavy praise for Grosswiler’s quick rise through the Columbus art scene.
“The dude’s mind is fertile territory. Crazy ideas and concepts. And I think for a lot of artists, that’s the struggle—coming up with the ideas and the content—that originality, that voice,” Jones said. “And Kent pretty much had that voice from the get-go.”
Grosswiler cites Jones and other Columbus-based surreal artists, such as Charles Wince, as major influences who helped define his warped style of celebrity and pet woodcut portraits. A vein of satirical caricature injected with pop culture runs throughout, reminiscent of Thom Lessner, whose paintings are prominently displayed in Dirty Frank’s. However, Grosswiler’s use of heavy lines and his stark contrast of light give his work an occasionally grotesque, undeniably humorous twist.
In my first interview with Grosswiler, he explained this elusive quality, saying, “One of my goals is to make people laugh, to make them smile, to make them scratch their heads and ask ‘What the f*ck is wrong with that guy?’”
Indeed, Grosswiler has a troubled past, which he spoke about openly.
“I shouldn’t even be on the planet,” Grosswiler said. “In late 2000, I had a four-figure-a-day drug habit. I was regularly on the business end of someone else’s firearm. Those kinds of things slowly become normal—it became as normal as taking a shower or brushing my teeth.”
Eventually, Grosswiler ended up in the hospital due to complications from IV drug use. “For the first time in my life, I was at a loss,” Grosswiler said. “The way I was living had been feeling wrong for years, but I just couldn’t get out of it.”
Taking matters into his own hands, Grosswiler went to rehab at the House of Hope here in Columbus, where he worked for years after getting sober. “I started to be grateful, and I really just got to be myself, and to be happy.”
Grosswiler still describes sobriety as a “process,” a permanent lifestyle change which is still being undertaken today. When he was undergoing treatment for hepatitis C, he “was watching a lot of wrestling to help pass the time” when he received a fortuitous phone call from W. Ralph Walters, asking him to participate in the Artist’s Wrestling League. “I was like, ‘Oh, hell yes.’”
And so, on stage in front of me at the a recent AWL showdown, is a mohawked man in hotpants attempting to wreak havoc on his opponents, while his teammate paints with an axe. A simple line on the canvas slowly reveals itself to be a profile of the live model before it is utterly destroyed by an opponent, leaving only a paint cigarette in tact. By the end of the match, both paintings have been ravaged, yet when the referee holds each one up to the audience, the team receiving the loudest cheer is obvious.
Holding a golden championship belt high above their heads, Crabby Jack and Jimmy “Wildman” Folk are declared victorious.
“Getting a third chance,” Grosswiler said, “or a third act in life to be in charge of what I’m doing in terms of art and writing and performance—I mean, it’s an amazing life.”