READING FROM REALITY
Tim Rollins wrote a few years ago that he used the profession of schoolteacher as a cover. The same could be said of the way he uses the profession of artist. Rollins is something else, when he gets together with K.O.S.-Kids of Survival. They are among the most effective cross-cultural mutations created by the socioesthetic conditions of the Frankensteinian eighties. Their work epitomizes everything that is best about the art of this decade, i.e. it is a hybrid, disturbingly familiar and simultaneously jolting and not post or neo anything. Its roots are deep in concrete, in urban popular and street culture. Its art history book is the mass media, but it has followed the Ben Day and TV dots to hidden agendas. It is both innocent and sophisticated, violent and compassionate. It is often created “undercover” on New York’s Lower East Side, South Bronx, Harlem, Williamsburg and Bed Stuy, sometimes as a cross-class collaboration. It has been anathema to established taste, not because it is shocking (that’s been acceptable for years), but because its raw edges make it hard to swallow.
Rollins and K.O.S. have been models for this independence movement. They look society dead in the eye and ironically ogle the emperor’s shiny riding boots. They can no longer be considered subcultural because a few grass roots have forced their way through the concrete curtain to the spotlight. Their last show was reviewed respectfully by The New York Times and Artforum, no longer as a curiosity, but as a strong, even formalist contribution to contemporary art. Why not? I think they can take the heat.
Rollins began to work with supposedly “learning disabled” and “emotionally handicapped” Junior High students in the South Bronx in 1980. He participated in programs that promote art as a road to reading, but his definition of reading goes way beyond the conventional notion of getting your letters together. When the K.O.S. read, they read. They-expose meanings most teachers don’t care to cope with. They understand and underline, interpret and intercept. They use the profession of student as a cover for their own subversive activities as artists-education against the odds.
The method is simple. They read a book and they deconstruct it, both physically and analytically. As Rollins reads aloud, the other artists “draw like crazy.” Then they all sit down together and distill the thousand or so sketches until they arrive at a few, key images – “pictures that look mysterious yet truthful.” Finally these fragments of literary criticism are transposed by various techniques onto the large, flat grid, or field, of printed pages. The results, in Rollins’ words, are “ideological battlescenes, and they portray the epic, furious combat that we all do daily in our wars between inculcated, fatalist belief and the oppressed, buried, and yet deep-rooted. will to making radical social change.”
The books tackled by the K.O.S. over the years would make up a pretty astounding college lit course. They include Brecht, Burroughs, newspapers, comic books, 1984, The Red Badge of Courage, The Wasteland, Alice in Wonderland, Dracula, Moby Dick, and The Autobiography of Malcom X. K.O.S. began with a raucous figuration and have now expanded to subtle metaphor and abstraction as well. The earlier series of individual responses have given way to unified imagery, collectively bargained. In the process, the K.O.S. bring to the book at hand their own associations, their unrestricted responses to their own lives and surroundings, which are usually drastically dissimilar to the authors’.
They make sculpture too, continuing one of their earliest projects-a collection of painted bricks shown together at Hostos College in 1985 as “Prayers to Broken Stone: Five Years of Art Against Arson .” Having read what the newspapers had to say about their neighborhood, the kids replied by throwing bricks from rubble-strewn vacant lots back through the windows of representation. Instead of bowing under the blame for their community’s devastation, they discovered redlining and development and planned political neglect. From the ruins around them, they made microcosmic single-brick sculptures of tenement buildings going up in flames. “No Heat” reads the one I have on my desk.
Rollins and K.O.S.’ contribution to a 1983 show about “1984” was titled “Ignorance is Strength,” an intended double entendre. Among the responses to Orwell’s book: 14-year-old John Mendoza’s image of a lightbulb casting swastika rays, “New Symbols are taking over. They come from bells that ring when a war is coming. The bell is a new light too. The new light shines in our eyes so bright that we all get blind.” Another student took the smurf as his avatar: “Smurf is looking behind his back. He worried about all the crazy shit he sees in 1984. He feels innocent and that he’s got nothing to do with it, nobody to turn to.” And Wanda D. wrote: “No matter how hard you try to stop it people still be staring at your window trying to see through your shade especially if you’re a girl.”
All along, Rollins has been taking his collaborators to art shows, openings, events, in which they are sometimes included. These kids know more about the art world than most of the boutique-boppers in SoHo. Their recent work shows their fascination with Minimalism and especially with the art of iconoclast Ad Reinhardt. Like his “meaningless” black paintings, their pieces are not as “blank” as they seem. Black Alice, for instance, records the almost invisible moment before Alice outgrows her space. Her frame-filling black-on-black silhouette can be read as a menacing shadow, a figure of power, an imprisoned psyche, a notyet-detailed future. The double meanings that permeate K.O.S. art certainly derive in part from Rollins’ slant on life. (He is a medium, like the books, and a progressive editor.) But they also emerge from the process of multiple execution. Even when visual consensus is reached, the individual has had his or her say. The result is an extraordinarily rich fabric of meaning.
The vitality of Rollins/K.O.S. art is traceable not only to its politico-esthetic successes, but to its authenticity. The exuberance of creative discovery is very close to the surface. The artists pose a subtle and often lyrical challenge to the assumption that only the fake can survive in an era virtually characterized by the ersatzfrom government to galleries. This is a form of idealism, like the tabula rasa of Dada, Minimalism, Punk-an attempt to clean the slate with various kinds of violence against the status quo. If artists from a Maine milltown and New York’s inner city can see clearly together maybe illumination is within reach.
Lucy R. Lippard