• U.S.

Painting: Grand Pop Moses

3 minute read

Setting out to paint quaint, cozy, often whimsical realism hardly seems the way to win the avantgarde. Yet such is precisely the goal of a Tennessee-born artist named Charles Grooms. “I’m really oldfashioned, basically,” he says, and his pursuit of everyday images has already earned him, at the age of 27, a reputation as the new Grand Pop Moses.

Primitive in manner and thickly impastoed, Grooms’s paintings are nostalgic vignettes of ordinary life. In a show of 36 works, which opened in Manhattan’s Tibor de Nagy gallery last week, he proves an ability to make folk theater in paint. In his Slab City Rendezvous, for instance, people misproportioned in daydream dimensions pose in the front yard of a Maine summer home, while an artist and his easel stand on the rooftop, projecting above the frame’s edge. In Eighth Avenue Snow Scene, the street juts out in a stage set to frame kids pranking while a gross, pipe-puffing man in galoshes and a checkered coat ambles by through the Styrofoam snow in wood-cutout make-believe. Grooms’s cartoon vision stems from reality. To do the snow scene, he sketched a Manhattan street corner during a blizzard until his fingers were stiff with cold.

Called “Red” because of his carrot mane and his penchant for clashing red clothes, Grooms is as gently ingenuous as his art. After high school in Nashville (where he was voted “Most Witty”), he successively studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, at the New School, and with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown. Fascinated with things theatrical, he also became head usher at the old Roxy in New York. “Part of art is showmanship,” he says. He directed his own “happenings” and acted in them in clown’s whiteface and ice-cream pants. Action painting was a religious faith to him for a while; once, before an audience, he performed a spontaneous painting called Fire. But the thrill of illusion proved more challenging than any pure struggle with oil paints.

“I like to make sort of documentaries,” says Grooms. “Something you can see as it happens—what people wear and do.” Often he makes wooden constructions that are as simple as a man petting a dog. “In itself,” he says, “that’s a cozy act.” Or, he confronts the viewer with Palace in Babylon, a cardboard mock-up of D. W. Griffith’s 1916 film epic, Intolerance. As in a spectacular dollhouse, chariots, dancers, spear bearers, and potentates in braided beards are framed betwixt potbellied columns. Atop them trumpet curly-trunked elephants, seated like corpulent Hollywood-style brokers at a banquet. Playful, punning, and still a sophisticated commentary, it is, like most of Red Grooms’s art, a toy for adults.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com