This exhibition at the Bronx Museum highlights the reciprocal relationship between historical texts and the art they have inspired. This is a conversation that should never end.
By Ken Tan
There is something utterly majestic about block letters — even more so at a staggering height of 12 feet. Such is the case of the letters ‘IM’ in the painting “Invisible Man (after Ralph Ellison)” (2008) by Tim Rollins & K.O.S. With its canvas left unstretched, resembling a colossal banner, it is hard not to feel the assertiveness of its message: to be unequivocally present.
“Invisible Man” is also the largest work in the exhibition Dialogues: Tim Rollins & K.O.S and Glenn Ligon currently on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, where intertextuality underscores the exhibition’s central theme. There are 11 different series of works between both artists, curated to highlight the rhymes of shared literary sources and subject matter central to their art.
The exhibition, as stated, is in honor of the late Tim Rollins, who passed away in December 2017. Rollins had a unique pedagogical approach to art-making: picture a preacher rolled together with Robin Williams’s Professor John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, around Joseph Kosuth’s theories. That’s Rollins. His story began in the early eighties in the South Bronx with a group of ‘at-risk’ students, where literary works not only became muses for their creative expression, but also life-guiding beacons. Collectively known as Tim Rollins & Kids of Survival (K.O.S.), they made art back onto the pages of books they discussed.
Glenn Ligon, also a voracious reader, is the counterpoint of the exhibition. With a sharp wit and a predilection for surface and form, Ligon’s success stems from an instinct to isolate precisely the right words for his conceptual language-based practice. And the result? Works endowed with visual enthrallment and just enough polemic content to invite new perspectives and interlocution.
Small but no less impactful is Ligon’s diptych print “Condition Report” (2000). Here, both panels reproduce the artist’s first exclusively-text painting from 1988 that utilized the “I AM A MAN” placards of the 1968 sanitation strike; only the right panel is annotated with the results of a procedural analysis by painting conservator Michael Duffy. What a brilliant gesture: at once, Ligon questions both the endurance of physical materials and the temperature of charged subject matter.
Ligon’s prints may seem like mere facsimiles of their original sources. For instance, the small “Untitled (America)” (2005) does not convey its neon parent’s buzzing disquiet. But with the right vehicle Ligon can offer a satisfying trip: this is the case in “Runaways” (1993), a series of ten lithographs based off of 19th-century posters to locate runaway slaves; except here, Ligon had asked his friends to provide their descriptions of him, as if reporting a missing person. Descriptions such as “very articulate” and “distinguished looking” are paradoxically generic. Rhyming in topic nearby is the large jubilant work, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (after Harriet Jacobs)” (1997) by Rollins & K.O.S. — festooned with vertical bars of colorful ribbons that trail carefreely onto the floor, expressing the young protagonist’s innocent fantasies of freedom while in hiding.
What can be more provoking than words penned as a result of socio-political strife? Two works by Rollins & K.O.S. channel the gravitas of their authors: “Suffering and Faith” (2008) after Martin Luther King and “Darkwater” (2013) after W.E.B. DuBois. In the former, MLK’s lamentations are manifested as a cross with a band of vertical white and horizontal black colliding in a red bloody middle. Look closely: the word “FAITH” appears from the fiery center. The latter sees seven panels from the haunting “Darkwater” series installed here with generous equidistance. Only the bottom halves of the book pages have been soaked in dense, murky pigments; hence altogether the panels suggest windows that look out onto the foreboding horizon of DuBois’s turbulent sea.
This exhibition highlights the reciprocal relationship between historical texts and the art they have inspired. Knowledge ignites creativity to produce art that now illuminates their literary sources for new discourse. This is a conversation that should never end.