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Whale's Tale

The centerpiece of "Red Grooms: Moby Dick Meets the New York Public Library," now on view at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, is so dauntingly enormous that I couldn't help thinking of the line used to promote this past summer's flop Godzilla: "Size matters." Just how big is this multimedia work? Big enough to walk into. Big enough to house a dozen nearly life-size human figures. This big: approximately 15 feet wide by 25 feet high by 45 feet long. The piece is of such monumental size that the Norton exhibit marks only the second time it's been publicly displayed. (The first was in New York City several years ago.)

Moby Dick takes up most of the Norton's first gallery, which is just off the main foyer, to the right. But the piece faces sideways, so you don't encounter it head-on as you enter the room. You have to sidle up to it, and it's great fun to watch the looks on the faces of museumgoers as they try to figure out what to make of the piece. I kept waiting, in vain, for the appearance of some children, who would probably respond intuitively to Grooms' sensibility.

Among adults there seems to be an initial wariness, maybe because so many of us have been conditioned to take art much more seriously than Grooms seems to. This is fun-house art with a thyroid disorder, an intentionally garish monstrosity that nudges and winks at us. The piece is essentially a conglomeration of sight gags, an interactive three-dimensional cartoon that invites us to provide any number of possible captions or punch lines. Grooms has gleefully conflated an adventurous work of American literature with a repository of such literature, and when these worlds collide, the resulting juxtapositions are often startling. (The artist has acknowledged, somewhat obviously, that the idea of Herman Melville working on Moby Dick at the New York Public Library was the starting point for this piece.)

Approach the work from front and center, the way you would actually enter the New York Public Library, and you're confronted with Melville's notorious white whale blocking the steps, its great jaws gaping to reveal a quartet of sailors casually arrayed, as if the whale's mouth were a surreal city bus stop. Above and around the beast, the "library" facade stretches away at skewed angles, its architectural features distorted and artificially aged.

On either side of the whale are Grooms' reinterpretations of the big stone lion sculptures that guard the gates of knowledge at the actual library. Here they're equipped with mechanical jaws that slowly, steadily move up and down, and an orange life preserver has been thrown around the neck of the lion on the right.

Now things get really interesting. Beyond the lions, just inside the library, Grooms again sends book and building into collision. Eight human figures sit around a long, narrow table, and they're people from decidedly different worlds. At opposite ends of the table, which slowly rocks back and forth, as if it's on the deck of the Pequod, sit two of Melville's key characters: the maniacal Captain Ahab, here looking atypically composed as he charts a course with a compass and a map, and the doomed Indian Queequeg, quaffing a mug of beer. In between are library patrons going about their business of reading and writing (one of whom is apparently Melville, working on the manuscript of Moby Dick), as well as a sailor carving a scrimshaw.

This library-mess table scene is rendered in considerable detail, with sections in both two and three dimensions. A real, functioning chandelier sways in rhythm with the rocking table, and a globe perched high on a shelf rotates. Rows of 3-D liquor bottles give way to shelves of drawn or painted books. Look up, and you'll see a ceiling mural that's a tongue-in-cheek nod to Michelangelo. And on the wall behind the table, Grooms has painted a vast reading room that recedes sharply into the distance. (The foreshortening and forced perspective here and elsewhere in the piece are familiar Grooms touches.)

Grooms, who was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1937, is a true American original who has been assembling these large-scale constructions since the early '60s, when he was among the New York-based artists who pioneered the interactive, multimedia events called "happenings." His 1962 Burning Building was a theatrical set with performers spilling from its windows, and in 1975 he appropriated a chunk of his adopted hometown, much the same way he did for Moby Dick, for the famous Ruckus Manhattan. The artist coined the term "sculpto-pictoramas" to describe these pieces, which inhabit some shadowy gray area in which sculpture, drawing, painting, and collage intersect.

As grandly and endearingly tacky as Moby Dick Meets the New York Public Library is, I prefer Grooms when he works on a more modest scale. He has produced plenty of sculpto-pictoramas, for instance, that are small enough to fit comfortably on a tabletop or shelf, and many of these painted-paper and mixed-media constructions are every bit as witty as his larger pieces -- and more approachable. They also show off Grooms' savvy as a gentle social satirist who's equally versed in pop culture and the fine arts. He's as likely to allude to Elvis and Fats Domino as to Edward Hopper, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Along with some pieces directly linked to Grooms' Moby Dick -- a couple of acrylic-on-paper studies of Ahab and the library-mess table, a gouache-on-paper sketch of the Pequod crew -- the Norton show includes only a few other works that hint at Grooms' versatility. The playful Charlie's Pirate Ship, a 1985 3-D piece that's part of the Norton's permanent collection, is a good example of the artist's medium-size paper constructions. And a pair of color monotypes from 1988, called Old Business II (Don Quixote With Windmill) and New Business II (Don Quixote With Condos), are especially appropriate for a South Florida setting.

The Grooms images from this exhibition that linger most resonantly for me, however, are two pieces that seem unusually understated for this exuberant artist, a pair hung side by side near the entrance to the Moby Dick installation and labeled "Other Literary Works." In the 1984 color monoprint with embossment called Camus, Grooms gives us a strikingly clean, direct portrait of the melancholy French writer-philosopher, clad in classic Arab garb and smoking a cigarette as he stands baking in a stark desert landscape that includes a palm tree and an oversize sun. In The Lion Roared II (Hemingway), a color monoprint with collage from 1989, the author sits at a typewriter, with which he's typed out a quintessentially Hemingwayesque passage: "The sun shone down. The man took a drink. The lion roared."

With these pictures Grooms distills each writer down to his terse essence. Seen in the same show with a work as cluttered and rambunctiously over the top as Moby Dick, they're ample documentation that Grooms is a consummate American prankster and a sophisticated, highly articulate cultural commentator. The artist has been described as a cross between P.T. Barnum and Marcel Duchamp, a characterization that, in this context, seems particularly apt.

"Red Grooms: Moby Dick Meets the New York Public Library" is on display through January 3 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, 561-832-5194.

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Michael Mills

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