When summer weather turns sultry, museums are very chill places to be.
By Martha Schwendener
BRONX MUSEUM OF THE ARTS
‘Dialogues: Tim Rollins & K.O.S. and Glenn Ligon'
“Do you want to make history?” Tim Rollins would ask students in the South Bronx public school where he started teaching in 1981. That pedagogical dialogue eventually resulted in the collective Tim Rollins & K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), which gained a level of fame in the New York art world in the ’80s and ’90s. In this small but evocative show at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which is dedicated to Mr. Rollins, who died last year, Tim Rollins & K.O.S. is paired with Glenn Ligon, another artist who has mined history to make art.
Both Tim Rollins & K.O.S. and Glenn Ligon appeared at a moment when the term identity politics was gaining currency, but their works, which address histories of violence, discrimination, racism and exploitation, are wildly and sadly pertinent today. Mr. Ligon frequently quotes African-American literature or pop culture, smearing or smudging stenciled letters in his works to reflect and emphasize the messiness or violence of the content — or the threat of historical erasure. Tim Rollins + K.O.S. developed a signature style of disassembling books they read together and pasting the pages on canvas, then painting over that grid, leaving the words partly readable. Texts by Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. Du Bois and Harriet Ann Jacobs appear here, as well as allusions to James Brown, Martin Luther King Jr. and the signs carried by men in the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike that read “I Am a Man.”
Where Tim Rollins + K.O.S. were competent and studious, however, Mr. Ligon brought a sly humor and brilliance to the enterprise. In “Untitled (Runaways)” from 1993, for instance, a series of lithographs that borrow the layout and aesthetic of 19th-century advertisements for escaped enslaved people, Mr. Ligon cast himself in the role of the runaway. “Glenn” is described throughout the series in funny and touching ways: he’s wearing “green tinted sunglasses”; he’s “socially very adept, yet paradoxically, he’s somewhat of a loner”; he “refers to himself as ‘mother’”; he “moves smoothly, looks like he might have something on his mind — he’ll find you.” To make such dark documents actually funny is a feat of appropriation and historical revision in which Mr. Ligon doesn’t just make history, but remakes it in his own image.