When my wife and I took a mini-vacation to Saratoga Springs, NY in late April, we went to the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College.
On the second floor, we came across Tim Rollins and K.O.S.: A History. This is a “major survey exhibition” that “examines the unique collaboration between Rollins, an artist, activist, and educator, and the Kids of Survival (K.O.S.), a group of artists originally made up of Rollins’s special education students from Intermediate School 52 in the South Bronx.”
The gallery presented “over twenty-five years of work collaboratively produced by Rollins and his students from the Bronx and from workshops conducted nationally and internationally. Based on literary texts, musical scores, and other printed matter, these works comprise one of the most celebrated and controversial art projects of the past quarter century.”
The piece above was inspired by the Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. The markings are wounds, but not always wounds in the pejorative sense. Alice in Wonderland (after Lewis Carroll) looked as though it were all white, but one could see Alice in silhouette. The Scarlet Letter (after Nathaniel Hawthorne) showed a series of bold versions of the letter A. Animal Farm (after George Orwell) used the tradition of making animals out of then-current political leaders.
But each canvas is the most interesting aspect of this process. They are made from the actual pages from the books, glued together but painted over. Yet one can still see the book text to greater or lesser degree.
How do I explain this? The pages are far more impressive in person than any visual I can show you. Our appreciation of the works was greatly enhanced by a docent who not only knew the history of each piece, but knew some of the young men, many of whom became successful in their lives.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (after Harriet Jacobs) was designed to represent the size of the room the slave girl hid in while seeing the world. There are a series of ribbons in front of the canvas, representing each student’s color of freedom. The ribbons don’t stop at the bottom of the canvas, but run free to the floor.
X-Men (after Marvel Comics) is a run of 1968 episodes of the comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, totally unaltered beyond being placed as the canvas.
The Adventures of Pinocchio (after Carlo Collodi) was a variation on the theme. There were a series of logs, with eyes affixed, representing the person inside these pieces of wood. We were told that this book cover provided K.O.S. with a modicum of fame but no royalties.
The most poignant piece for me was Invisible Man (after Ralph Ellison). One of the Kids of Survival did not survive. He was killed along with four or five others, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Daily News (New York City tabloid) headline read VICTIM… The pages of IM were whitewashed, with only the letters IM appearing in the Daily News font. But you’ll notice that while on the top of the page, the words of the book cannot be seen, by the bottom of the page, they are readable. The slain young man is not invisible after all.
We wanted to buy the catalogue but it was not yet prepared as of our visit. The website says: “Tang Curator Ian Berry will serve as curator and editor of the project. The catalogue will be co-published with MIT Press and will include extensive new photographs of Rollins/K.O.S. work; exhaustive biographic information for Rollins and all K.O.S. members, and their first fully researched bibliography and exhibition history. Berry will provide a wide-ranging overview interview with Rollins, and a number of essays will be commissioned… A selection of writings by Martin Luther King—a key source for Rollins as he formed his early practice – will also be included.”
We did buy the now decade-old video from the Tang store and found it extremely moving. One of the aspects of the process that it touched on was Rollins’ use of the classic literature – read “primarily written by white people” ; other pieces that have been done included A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after William Shakespeare), Diary of a Young Girl (after Anne Frank), The Creation (after Franz Joseph Haydn), The War of the Worlds (after H.G. Wells). The critics asked: “How are black and Latino kids supposed to relate to these stories?” But relate to it they do; such is the power of this collaboration of literature and art. Also, many black writers WERE ultimately used.
Tim Rollins and K.O.S.: A History runs from February 28, 2009 through August 23, 2009; see it if you can.
I wish I had written it down, but the elevator music was labeled, with the musician and composer listed, as though it were part of the art experience, which I guess it was.
The program on the first floor was Oliver Herring: Me Us Them, a “fifteen-year survey …including sculpture, performance, photography and video.” One of his pieces appeared to be a menage a quatre. But it wasn’t sensual; it was, after all silvery Mylar. My favorite piece actually was a Mylar bed with a coat on it. I was not allowed to photograph it, but art critic David Brickman found a shot of it here; it’s even more impressive when seen from the mezzanine. Overall, I think David enjoyed the Herring show more than I did.
It runs from January 31, 2009 through June 14, 2009.