New York

Red Grooms

Marlborough | Midtown

“New York Stories” is Red Grooms’ latest attempt to present a slice of Big Apple life. Nearly twenty years after his “Ruckus Manhattan” exhibition, Grooms is still primarily interested in portraying this city’s quotidian “ruckus”—his word for the chaos defining late-20th-century urban civilization—with a healthy dose of comedy. The artist’s trademark sculptopictoramas," mixed-media assemblages combining two-dimensional and freestanding elements, are especially suited to the task of characterizing the excitement and claustrophobia unique to New York. By mixing the dizzying pictorial recessions of a loopy, cartoon-world space with unpredictable sculptural explosions of real space, Grooms has transformed familiar Fifth Avenue landmarks into sites where in-your-face slapstick consistently overrides but never quite erases a sense of mild terror (the kind that might plague a five-year-old at a carnival). In The Plaza, 1995, the famous hotel appears to be sucked violently into the sky, while a friendly horse pokes his head into our space, as if to invite us for a ride through Central Park. The looming spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral are upstaged in Easter Parade, 1994, by a brightly painted panorama of parade goers. Especially good is the Flatiron Building, 1995, in which a bird’s-eye view engenders an uncomfortable sense of vertigo, despite the presence of happy-go-lucky city dwellers below.

Too often, however, Grooms’ fancy for charming detail undercuts the more admirable qualities of the work. From the Where’s Waldo–esque workers cozily situated in the underground level of Rockefeller Center, 1995, to the caricatures of downtowners in The Flea Market, 1993, to the lone figure slipping on an icy Chinatown street in Oops!, 1994, cuteness becomes the common denominator. The wonderfully uncanny presence of the vinyl and nylon The Bus, 1995, a near-replica of a city bus (complete with a swaying floor, working coin box, and driver whose head swivels as one climbs on board) is ultimately weakened by the artist’s penchant for caricature—spoofy “disorder” ads, urban ethnic stereotypes—which reduces this work to the level of pure entertainment.

Grooms has always been, and always will be, an entertainer, a venerable court jester. The awestruck tourist family standing engrossed by the glowing Christmas window’s opulent mininarrative in Saks Fifth Avenue, 1994, is the ideal audience for Grooms’ art-as-mass-entertainment. One always feels uncomfortably trapped viewing Grooms’ work—trapped between dismissing the lightheartedness of the work, and thereby being accused of snobbery, or giving in to it at the cost of criticality. To be sure, the latter response is much easier to effect in the artist’s larger, amusement park–type installations than in a gallery exhibition such as this one. Mining the territory between art and entertainment, as Grooms is said to do, requires a much sharper critical edge. Such an edge is ultimately missing in Grooms’ work, a fact that reduces these New York stories to amusing collectibles for wealthy tourists.

Jenifer P. Borum