The Far Out Land of Red Grooms is Not Far Far Away
Go to the Red Grooms show at the Michener Museum after seeing Shrek 2 and you will find that a bigger, brighter realm than the Kingdom of Far Far Away is only as far away as Doylestown. True, there are no green ogres or talking donkeys among this mixed-media artist's sprawling labyrinth of creatures, human and otherwise, but there are definite similarities between the movie's caricature of Hollywood and Beverly Hills and Grooms's caricature of Manhattan. Because you can see it up close, the kingdom of Grooms is even more fun.
At the Red Grooms show museumgoers do a lot of smiling and every now and then someone laughs out loud. Kids who see the miniature subway car and the London doubledecker bus want to take them home. For that matter, adults want to take them home. In Latin, "museum" means a place for "learned occupation" and so it is, since Red Grooms alludes to art and literature and western culture. But this is a wild and whimsical ride in the spirit of the Wellington Museum tour in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake: "This is the way to the museyroom. Mind your hats goan in! Now yiz are in the Willingdone Museyroom."
In Joyce's museyroom "Napoleon" becomes "Lipoleum," and you could say that what Joyce does with words is close to what Red Grooms does more garishly and coherently with images as he performs the visual equivalent of wordplay. Not that words aren't part of the picture. Whether flat and framed or encased in Plexiglas in the form of stand-up, three-dimensional scenes he calls "sculpto-pictoramas," the artist's sloppy, excessive, exuberant works overflow with words, slogans, and brand-names. It's as if some inspired graffiti artist had gone around taking possession of street signs, billboards, and whole cities.
Kids can relate to Grooms because they're not that far from when they were splashing colors on paper with something like the same careless, unselfconscious flow of pure unrestrained imagination, freeform and in-your-face. A Grooms show is the perfect museum ice-breaker for children who might drag their feet at the prospect. Grooms interiors and exteriors are packed to bursting with a chaos of matter, familiar objects stretched into funny shapes suggestive at times of Dr. Seuss, or Walt Disney on a bender. The show's title, "Selections from the Complete Graphic Works, 19562000," sounds deceptively flat. A generous portion of the works on display have popped out of the frame and are standing there in 3-D, so that details that might be embedded in mere paintings, like the umbrellas of the crowd in the Grooms pictorama of Times Square, seem to grow toward you like flowers. Grooms puts the "anima" in animation.
Going down the stairs to the Wachovia Gallery, you'll see a large silkscreen print of a chunky, decidedly inelegant Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. What Grooms does to elegance and glamour amounts to joyous desecration, and in this case, it's being enacted by a movie fan and moviemaker who worked briefly as a uniformed usher at a midtown movie palace during his early days in New York. The perfect Grooms subject, however, is in another room in the person of Chuck Berry, whose nutty, low-moving, leg-kicking playing style is worthy of a place in Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks and must have had Grooms thinking "There goes one of my people!" But then no one is immune to being Groomed. Sharing the same wall with Chuck Berry are Gertrude Stein and Elvis Presley. You have two Gertrude Steins, in fact. One is seated, a 3-D travesty of Picasso's portrait of the author, whose somber attire has been done over in a floral print more appropriate to a parlor in Peoria than a studio in Paris. Should you want to imagine making your own version, Grooms has provided a paper-doll-like cut-out, tabbed and numbered and ready to be assembled. As for Elvis, he is actually less distorted than the other cultural icons. A nearly life-size print of the King in the guise of a gunfighter (on Japanese Mulberry paper yet) is at the entrance to the show. The Elvis next to Gertrude Stein is also relatively true to life (Elvis being, like Chuck Berry, a master of self-caricature), with the Presley sneer perfectly rendered. It makes sense for Elvis to be on hand since he and Grooms are both products of Tennessee, as is this show, which was organized by the Tennessee State Museum and drawn entirely from the personal collection of Grooms's childhood friend, Walter Knestrick.
Slices of The Apple
While growing up in Nashville, Grooms "wished desperately that it had a bigger skyline and that the streets had more people on them. I wanted to live in a big, big city. That's why New York is my home."
If you love New York, you'll connect with the vision of the city spilling all over the room devoted to it here. Even if you don't love New York, you'll find it hard not to warm to Grooms's slaphappy celebrations of Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and Grand Central Station, the site of his 1993 show, which ran for six months and drew 110,000 people.
The closest thing to an R. Crumb moment in the exhibit is the 3-D street scene "Traffic 1999." The big girl coming right at you is a perfect R. Crumb type. Even so, Grooms's scenes of street life rarely evoke the seedy, spaced-out grunge of Crumb's. In his passion for the Big Apple, its people and situations, Grooms is actually closer to Reginald Marsh, though his work is as gaudy as Marsh's is somber.
Like Marsh, Grooms finds the subway an irresistible subject. His daughter Saskia rode it to school and can be seen in one of her father's pictoramas, a red-haired little girl holding on with both hands while the rush-hour mass of subway humanity pushes behind her. Another subway work is of an open side-view of a car (it looks like Saskia's there again, her school bag on her back) with a blind saxophonist in the aisle while out on the platform the graffiti artist Keith Haring can be seen at work.
Haring is only one among a host of fellow artists Grooms animates in this exhibit: you have Dali in a salad; Van Gogh with his sunflowers; Picasso in a mad mob scene of heaven; Jackson Pollock in action flailing away with four extra arms; D.H. Lawrence with a suitcase full of demons on his head; Matisse painting a nude; de Kooning "breaking through" on a bicycle with a harpie on the handlebars, the paper ripping at the corners with the impact of his emergence. You can see Picasso, Sartre, Camus, Cocteau, and Juliette Greco, among others, hanging out at the Deux Magots in Paris, or you can look in on the abstract expressionist crowd at the Cedar Tavern in 1950s New York with Grooms himself on the scene, as he was, age 20, fresh from Nashville. The artist also makes an appearance in a pair of shades, a toothpick in his hand, after a meal at the Red Bud Diner. As an exhibition note puts it, Grooms sees artists more as heroes of popular culture than as masters of high art.
You've only got until January 2 to get to the Michener Museum, which means a drive to Doylestown. If that seems a long way to go during a month of heavy Christmas-shopping, there are plenty of fringe benefits. You can stop off in Lambertville or New Hope on the way; and after New Hope there's Lahaska, with its complex of factory outlet stores. Outside Doylestown you can get in the mood for Grooms by visiting tile heaven at Fonthill and the adjoining Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.