Studio K.O.S. brings the art of social justice to L.A.

Amid renewed hand-wringing in the art world about what it means to be both an artist and a lawyer, and whether it’s possible to be both at the same time, Studio KOS, an art collective founded by artist Tim Rollins with students from South Bronx Middle School 1982, held his first exhibition in Los Angeles.

Originally known as Art and Knowledge, KOS stands for Kids of Survival and has evolved from an inner-city arts program into an evolving arts collective with an international flair. Each canvas in the LA show Invisible Man at the O-Town House gallery is made from actual pages from a copy of the book of the same name – a standard feature for most of KOS’ work, and a tricky one.

Will the books be destroyed or reborn? One definition of destroying a book would be to render it unreadable, yet the paintings are visceral evidence of a physical and energetic engagement with the text through the oral reading, the music and the improvisational image generation that takes place in the workshop, including a process called “jammin,” in which the artist draws or paints while another reads. When texted asking how the workshop experience was for her, student Anna Jones wrote back, “The space felt sacred.”

“Our conversations generated an electricity and synergy that stimulated my thoughts around the intersections of literature, social justice and the visual arts. … We worked individually, but it felt collaborative.”

Chopped up and screwed together and reassembled, the text unfolds into new forms of legibility and frees it from the technique of the book.

Although the study images were small, completed paintings from the Invisible Man series were mounted on 36″ x 36″ canvases and seemingly attacked on all sides by three triangles and a rectangle forming the letters IM in negative space. Alternately appearing as modernist abstraction or graphic typography, the paintings’ huge IMs become like Rubin’s vase or a Rorschach test of aesthetic sympathy. Like trying too hard to look at a 3D eye image and commanding it to be one or the other, relaxing the eye allows it to be both. This tension becomes the backdrop for large studio-made paintings that have the appearance of a single author but are the result of many hands.

The entrance to "invisible man" exhibition

Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” served as inspiration for the new exhibition by Studio KOS.

(Brica Wilcox)

The knife-like triangle descending from the top baseline of the “M” graphic is reminiscent of the red triangle on El Lissitzky’s 1919 Soviet propaganda poster, “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” a lithograph of a sharp red isosceles symbol for the Bolsheviks of the 1917 Russian Revolution piercing a white circle symbolizing the anti-communist party. Like the Constructivists, previous Invisible Man series stuck to a strict palette – although red is conspicuously absent. Bright blue dominates against a background of black and white text. Black, White and Blue could be a poetic coda for what we’ve been through. Say “black, white and blue” enough times and it sounds like an elegy for America sung only through colour.

For the current exhibition at O-Town House, a Scott Cameron Weaver-run gallery in the historic Granada buildings in MacArthur Park, students from the Windward School, a private college preparatory school in Mar Vista, and Ryman Arts, an extracurricular non-profit arts , shown program made up of students from various schools, came together for a workshop moderated by artists and original KOS members Angel Abreu and Rick Savinon. Putting workshops together for different groups seems to be the key to keeping the energy and spirit of the KOS process alive.

Abreu joined KOS in 1986 at the age of 12. Now, along with other founding members, including Savinon, Jorge Abreu and Robert Branch, he leads the group’s continued development – expanding into digital and video work, which is also at O-Town House – alongside his own art practice and a teaching position at the School of Visual Arts in New York. KOS started with middle school students in the Bronx but over the years has worked with high school and graduate students, usually from a single school or organization. Mixing students from different groups in a single workshop “was new for this particular project and opened our eyes to what the possibilities could be,” says Angel Abreu. The shift in scale between “Invisible Man” and the work produced in previous workshops based on the same text reflects the adaptive nature of the group process of KOS.

The work on display at the O-Town House is part of a larger, ongoing series that has emerged from various workshops across the country and will culminate in an exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art once the series reaches 1,369 – the number of lightbulbs that the narrator has “Invisible Man” wired and powered from the ceiling of his basement shack, illegally tapped from the utility company. The O-Town House features 47 of these, which emerged from a day-long workshop hosted by the gallery, which developed the larger work over time. “We’re at 350 right now, almost 400,” says Savinon. “That’s an estimate.” The smaller scale of the newer paintings makes the workshop method leaner, more mobile and attracts more participants to the studio.

Since the death of artist and KOS founder Tim Rollins in 2017, the group has not only had to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to the changing way students engage with media. “We developed new protocols for the workshops that include digital tools,” says Abreu. “We’ve stretched out one hand to the analogue and one to the digital, and we’re trying to be channels for both because having that tactile relationship with books has never been more important. We don’t want to lose that, but we just can’t go on like this either.”

The exhibition consists of many variations on the original IM graphic, this time executed on small 6″ x 6″ masonite panels and hung in a straight line forming a ring around the main gallery space. It’s a fitting re-entry into this work. When asked what inspired her to use “Invisible Man” for this series when the group’s source material ranges from Shakespeare to opera to romantic literature, Savinon explains: “It was the murder of George Floyd. We’ve been playing with this text since the late ’80s, early ’90s. We grew up in poor communities where we experienced this again and again. We always connect history to current events, and with George Floyd it just seemed like we’d seen it over and over again. The IM comes from the word sacrifice. You take away the V, the I, the C, the T… all you’re left with is the I and the M. I’m a person, I’m a man, I’m someone, I’m someone to be listened to. “

The installation of this exhibition, composed of many small paintings as opposed to few larger ones, gives the feeling of a choir, many voices saying “I AM, I AM, I AM”, alternating a chant, a protest, a poem. The collection of individual panels also provides space to showcase the range of individual voices that make up the project as a whole. “One of the biggest messages I took away from our analysis…was the concept of individuality,” said student Selina Yu after the show opened. “Everyone is different, from their thought processes to their experiences. I explored abstract ways of representing individuality.”

The work KOS produces, like most artworks that come through the MFA-to-Gallery system pipeline, is a studio-based process characterized by access to physical space dedicated solely to experimentation and art creation serves, and gives priority to the process of creation, the work of achieving a specific end result. It is the seamless integration of these processes into a model that is both migratory and collaborative that makes the digestion of source material a group effort that makes it unique among other efforts to guide the youth into art while simultaneously educating them from the art world to keep separate. “The social” in contemporary art is so often reduced to a theme or object – the work is around the one-sidedness of the story, it is around Capitalism or art market or collective work.

The problem is ever-present: how to frame collective action – what we foolishly push behind the aegis of the Art of Living – as Capital A-Art. How do you make community as an aesthetic commodity, readable as an optical object of purchase, purchasable? The stickiness of these issues is avoided by avoiding the art market, and therefore the art world at large, but as author Susan Cahan points out in her catalog essay for the 2009 exhibition Tim Rollins and KOS: A History Skidmore College, “By contrast… KOS jumped onto the market with enthusiasm.” Since its first gallery exhibition at Jay Gorney Modern Art in New York in 1986, Studio KOS’ work has been exhibited in over 120 museums and collections around the world placed. (Chase Bank owns one of the works from this show, America I, from the series based on Franz Kafka’s unfinished first novel America.) 1991 Whitney Biennale, 1988 Venice Biennale and documenta 8.

The group’s power and longevity lies in this fusion of aesthetics and social justice, rarer still for their conceptual sophistication and high status in the art world. Justice itself is an artistic act and is accessible to everyone. The philosopher and activist Simone Weil, who died in the midst of World War II, articulated the possibility of this merging when she wrote: “The love of neighbor that consists of creative attention is analogous to genius.”

“The ultimate work of art,” says Abreu, “is when these kids actually make friends and find ways to relate to each other, maybe beyond the workshop.” Studio K.O.S. brings the art of social justice to L.A.

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