High-spirited artist Red Grooms lampoons the ordinary

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor Denver

The frantic glee of a Red Grooms cityscape astonishes and delights. The excitement, noise, fury, fun, and foolishness of city life leaps out of the picture frame, arresting the viewer with wild colors and frenetic activity. Grooms has observed and recorded in intricate detail the fabric of the city as an event. The traveling exhibition ``Red Grooms: A Retrospective,'' which originated at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and is currently on view at the Denver Art Museum, generates high spirits. Responding to the festive atmosphere of the exhibition, teen-agers and children instantly relate to his lampooning of the ordinary.

In his 30-year career, Grooms's stature as an artist has been critically acclaimed and his popularity established. A rebel from the high idealism of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, Grooms was linked with Pop-Art but defies so narrow a categorization. In fact, no ``ism'' defines his work. Much of it resembles cartoon, though it is infinitely expressive and individual. He worked in various media -- from the ``happenings'' of the '60s to painting, performance, sculpture, lithography, and film -- and h is ``unique ability to successfully turn every material he picks up to his own ends transcends craft,'' says Jane Fudge of the Denver Art Museum. ``He is one of the seminal artists working in the US today.''

Grooms is a master of the moment frozen -- the woman in midstride, the football player tackled, the many-legged dog or cat dashing across a street in petrified animation. Grooms absorbs the detailed facts of everyday life, records them, and propels them back to us as a unified whole.

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So much of his work strains under the impulse to move that, not surprisingly, some of it is wired to do so (as is ``The City of Chicago''). In his collaborative ``Ruckus Manhattan,'' Grooms built a walk-through subway car with a moving floor. The sensation of train movement enhances the work's effect. The ludicrous oversized papier-m^ach'e inhabitants of the subway are all the more engaging as we move through the sculpture.

Carnivals, circuses, and the movies have influenced Grooms from earliest youth. The participatory nature of the carnival draws us into itself, surrounding us with brash colors and exaggerated expressions. With their constant flow of human activity, grotesque masks, and comic figures, carnivals and similar theatrical events mimic ``real'' life.

The room-sized walk-in sculpture ``City of Chicago'' (done in collaboration with Mimi Gross) welcomes the viewer with a motorized arch peopled with Chicago's historic notables: Mrs. O'Leary and her cow, Lincoln and Douglas, Al Capone, and others.

The same brilliant whirl of detail that distinguishes many of his little boxes, paintings, and films adds further life to his sculptures and three-dimensional wall reliefs. The sense Grooms gives us of multiplicity and simultaneity may be his greatest gift. Not only does he capture place -- the essence of a city, a room, a subway car -- but he helps us to see an array of equally important individual lives and events going on all at once. In ``Looking Along Broadway Towards Grace Church'' (1981), Grooms assembled all the elements of a big city street. A laborer emerges from a man-hole, tall buildings lean precariously. ``Looking Along Broadway . . .'' seems to hum with movement.

Grooms's 16-mm films take the illusion of movement a step further. In a recent interview, he affirmed his fascination with animation: ``I like animation because it allows you to let the characters come alive. There is an element of play in having your characters do something in time and space.'' ``Fat Feet'' is a favorite on the experimental film circuit. The magical and fantastic inhabit these frenetic comedies, mocking society's pretensions and illusions.

Several works in the exhibit are derived from Hollywood movies, myths, and icons. ``A Light, Madam,'' ``Somewhere in Beverly Hills,'' ``Western Pals,'' and ``Shoot-Out'' take their inspiration from early motion-picture making. A sardonic element permeates these works, exposing the fundamental absurdity of movie-made sophistication.

His vision of the human condition is essentially theatrical, often cinematic. If Grooms mocks the great American icons of politics and the silver screen and shares his amusement at the human comedy as he sees it played out daily, his work also reflects a lively appreciation and genuine affection for those who people his landscapes.

We may laugh at the horrified expression of a woman on a subway who gasps at the derelict fallen across her lap (in ``Ruckus Manhattan''), but we aren't likely to despise her. Grooms has us participate in her reality and in his by drawing us into the subway with its moving floor, its crowded seats, its visual clutter.

Since the whole human comedy, including great works of art history, elicits a participatory response from Grooms, his hommage to much-loved work sometimes looks like parody. But something deeper is going on. In ``Night Hawks Revisited'' Grooms takes Edward Hopper's famous painting and translates it into contemporary terms. Hopper's quiet caf'e is viewed from a distance. The deserted street frames the isolated figures in the caf'e. The restrained color palette of Hopper's p ainting explodes in the brash light of Grooms's caf'e. A car rushes past on the trash-littered street. Cats and punks stride the neon-bright night sidewalks. A dynamic tension unites the various units of energy, the patrons of the caf'e, in one busy, buzzing whole. Is that Red himself serving behind the counter? Grooms joins in Hopper's vision, transforming it into the vernacular of his (and our) own times.

``Part of my work is about the immediate experience I'm going through,'' Grooms has said. ``The art isn't just about art. I'm participating in the general hubbub. I don't see [making art] as an isolated occupation. I always thought . . . you were supposed to be learning something as you did it.'' The immediacy of his vision, his unsentimental gaze at the commonplace, his tough wit, perspicacity, and vitality celebrate the rush and clutter of human experience, in which he en ergetically participates.

``Red Grooms: A Retrospective'' is on view at the Denver Art Museum through Jan. 5. It may be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, from March 12 to June 29 and then at Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, from Aug. 17 to Oct. 26, 1986. -- 30 --

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