Step right up to Red Grooms' 25-year retrospective, opening today at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Temporary Contemporary facility.
Teaming Grooms' proletarian views with a 12-year survey of Jonathan Borofsky's multimedia creations, the museum hosts the liveliest program in its short history.
See Grooms' sultry movie stars; a handsome football player; a cowboy shoot-out; a jam-packed subway; teeming street scenes from New York and Chicago; portraits of artists Alex Katz, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. The art world's all-American kid has pretty well covered the national waterfront.
"You might say that all of my work has come out of American experience," Grooms says, taking a break from installing his exhibition. Up from a Nashville childhood and indelibly stamped with the Grand Ole Opry, the Tennessee State Fair's Cavalcade of Amusement, Hollywood movies and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Grooms has said he finds vulgarity "kind of charming."
Mining America's popular culture for subjects, he has turned the country's heroes and history, its tackiness, homely values and outlandish fantasies into everything from cartoonish paintings to three-dimensional "stick-outs" that resemble outsized pop-up greeting cards.
But look over here. Is this a life-size geisha in a wooden bathtub? Does this tableau depict the sacking of a Japanese castle, a la Kurosawa? It this a Parisian fashion show? An Egyptian theater? Has Red Grooms gone international?
"I want to keep a dialogue open," Grooms answers, noting that his work has become "less regional" but no less concerned with real people and places. With the help of his French collaborator, "sweetheart" and traveling companion, Lyziane Luong, Grooms has extended his "dialogue" to Europe, the Middle East and the Orient, but his style is still unmistakable.
Having arrived in Los Angeles with an amazing traveling circus that has already played in Denver and Philadelphia, Grooms and his crew were feverishly rebuilding familiar pieces and creating a major new one at the Temporary Contemporary. Called "Tut's Fever," it's an Egyptian-style movie palace where Hollywood history meets the tomb of Tutankhamen.
The 50-seat theater is a 30-by-40-foot portable room, designed to screen Grooms' animated films, which will be shown in hourlong programs during the exhibition. It's a functional artwork but, remaining true to his Baroque instincts, the 48-year-old artist didn't dream up a simple movie house. He invented a five-star spectacle, inspired by Cecil B. DeMille's film "The Ten Commandments" and a trip to Egypt.
"I've wanted to build a big theater for about 10 years, but the retrospective gave me a good reason to do it," Grooms says, adding that Los Angeles seemed the ideal city for its debut. "I could have done the theater in Spanish Baroque, Moderne or even Chinese, but when I went to Egypt, I said, 'OK, it's going to be Egyptian.' " He and Luong embarked on a daunting research project, digging for photographs and written accounts of Egypt that would fortify their firsthand experience.
"I've always been interested in overlaying a narrative on a structure," Grooms says. In "Tut's Fever," the narrative is a zany pastiche of Hollywood lore, while the structure and style are Groomsian Egyptian.
You buy your ticket from a sculpture of Clara Bow, who sits beneath a marquee flanked by Marilyn Monroe and Orson Welles figures. The lobby is decorated with murals depicting--among other hilarities--movie producers fleeing across the Egyptian desert to Hollywood, a meeting of stars at San Simeon and Rudolf Valentino playing Lord Carnarvon as he entered Tutankhamen's tomb.
Interpreting the painted narratives with obvious relish, Grooms rounds a corner and points out an empty window. "This will be James Dean's tomb. He plays Tutankhamen. There will be an animated effect: When you pull a cord, James Dean will pop up from Tut's coffin"--mummified.
Inside the screening room, whose walls are covered with hieroglyphics and lined with monumental foam-rubber statuary, Grooms explains that a sphinx, "played by Clark Gable," has a nose that covers the projector. Before each program, a cannonball will be fired across the room, knocking the proboscis off the sphinx and starting the movie.
If "Tut's Fever" is a boggling spectacle, even for a Grooms exhibition, the artist himself seems an unlikely subject for a proper retrospective. Not that he's unworthy, it's just that he has long been considered an outsider. A figurative artist throughout the reign of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Conceptualism, he's too much a humanist to be a cool Pop artist, too fundamentally nice to be a scathing satirist.
But Grooms is quite comfortable with the idea of putting his life's work before the public in a culture palace. "I've always worked within the framework of the art world and I've watched other artists who had retrospectives, so I always expected to get one," he says.