New York

Tim Rollins + Kids of Survival

Jay Gorney Modern Art

To a significant extent, dominant culture’s misrepresentations of others lies in our failure to acknowledge that different but equally valid ways of conceptualizing the world may exist. Romantic paradigms of the transcendental self, the creative individual, or one who possesses privileged knowledge continue to frame questions of subjectivity. Tim Rollins + Kids of Survival (K.O.S.) radically challenge these purist and elitist notions. Their collaborative art interprets culture through young people who are generally dismissed as having virtually nothing to contribute to it. Rollins has worked with South Bronx teenagers for about seven years, extending his school program at I.S. 52 into an independent workshop called “Art and Knowledge.” The kids in it have made a serious commitment to a program whose practical activities incorporate reading, discussion, and direct contact with art in museums and galleries.

K.O.S. begins with the book. Container of knowledge and guarantor of “civilized” culture, the book also represses those who are not its subjects, especially those educated in a history and ideology that effaces their own experiences and traditions. K.O.S., therefore, investigates classics of world literature, examining primary themes or instants in these texts that can be reinvested with K.O.S’s knowledge and feelings, both of local experiences in the South Bronx as well as of broader world issues. The book is thus reclaimed. No longer merely an object of consumption, its pages form the ground upon which another image is constructed.

During the past year, as the workshop has discovered a communal identity, its work has developed away from crude juxtapositions of figurative elements and toward a refined imagery. The Whiteness of the Whale, 1985–86, takes on the epic proportions of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. A pall of whiteness consumes the pages, rendering the original text all but illegible. K.O.S. revises the color symbolism of dominant culture; here whiteness carries the power of evil. Moving like a sea fog across the space, it censors and obliterates. This theme is reexamined in Black Alice II, 1982–86, which pivots around the moment in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland when the heroine has grown so large she fills the room. Alice, outlined in black on a black rectangle so as to be virtually invisible, is now trapped in a frame that constrains and inhibits her growth.

Political without being propagandist, the work has a breadth that extends beyond its subtle commentaries on white/nonwhite cultural relations, and seeks to dismantle the representations that support dominant myths. If the sumptuous golden horns of The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, 1985–86, reflect upon Franz Kafka’s fantasy of America, By Any Means Necessary–1965, 1986, and The Red Badge of Courage II, 1986, make culture’s use of acts of self-sacrifice and heroism problematic. A logo for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, invented for By Any Means Necessary—1965, succinctly reflects the anonymity and powerlessness experienced by voiceless minorities. The Red Badge of Courage II, however, touches a universal chord. Like the body in a Grünewald altarpiece, the pages of Stephen Crane’s novel are marked by open wounds. These are signs of the violation of those whose lives are insignificant or expendable according to a symbolic order that appropriates their deaths through a language of heroism, supporting its own master narratives.

Jean Fisher