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Tim Rollins's Creative Streak

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page WE54

"IN THE beginning," according to Genesis, "God created the heavens and the earth." Out of pure nothingness, of course. Tim Rollins might not have it much easier.

Rollins is the founder and driving force behind the artists' collective known as K.O.S. (or Kids of Survival), a group that arose in the early 1980s out of Rollins's belief in the power of art as a way to reach troubled and disadvantaged young people. Examples of the group's work can be seen in two area venues, with a third show opening Saturday. The centerpiece is "The Creation," a print portfolio inspired by composer Franz Josef Haydn's famous oratorio and made, over 2003 and 2004, in collaboration with local students and educators at Pyramid Atlantic, a Silver Spring art center dedicated to paper-, book- and printmaking.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream (After Mendelssohn)," by Tim Rollins and the artist collective K.O.S., bursts with color. (Tim Rollins)

At the Kreeger Museum, that portfolio is the impetus behind "On Music: Tim Rollins + K.O.S. (Kids of Survival)," as it is behind "The Creation Project," a satellite show at Pyramid Atlantic that goes into a little more detail about the collaborative process in which the prints were made. On Saturday, Fusebox Gallery will open a show of paintings called "Freedom Works," putting the art of Rollins and K.O.S. in a broader context.

On one hand, the finished "Creation" is a fairly straightforward, if abstract, interpretation of Haydn's musical version of the creation story, covering everything from the primordial chaos to the emergence of mosquitoes . . . and man. Yet it's also a nearly perfect metaphor for the artistic process itself, with the exception that, unlike the maker in the biblical account of creation, Rollins doesn't work alone.

It's hard not to talk about "On Music" without talking about process. If Rollins lived up (or down) to the cliche of the solitary artist, working alone in his studio with no one to answer to but his own imagination, it wouldn't be worth mentioning. But in the case of "On Music" -- which includes music-themed pieces dating back 16 years and which, in addition to Haydn, counts Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert and Franz Kafka among its musical and literary sources, and which involves scores of collaborators young and old, and sometimes complex fabrication methods -- process itself is topic A.

So much so that the temptation is often there to see not the finished artwork at all but merely its making. The two short making-of-"The Creation" documentaries playing continuously in one gallery reinforce this notion. It would be most unfortunate, however, a case of missing the forest for the trees, to construe that how something was made trumps what it looks like.

And what this show looks like is pretty darn fine.

From the finished "Creation" print portfolio -- which evokes, in seven monochrome swirls of gray-and-black pages set against the notes of Haydn's stirring musical score, the way music might look if the ear could see -- to the millefiori-like riot of collaged watercolor paper in "A Midsummer Night's Dream (After Mendelssohn)," this is a show that is as sensual as it is conceptual.

In other words, it sings.

Which is an especially apt metaphor, considering that exhibition curator Andrea Pollan likens the relationship between Rollins and his many collaborators to that of a conductor and his orchestra. Working not only with the elementary, middle and high school students, but with their parents and teachers; as well as a group of college students from George Mason University's Department of Art and Visual Technology; independent curator Milena Kalinovska; and the staff of Pyramid Atlantic, without whose papermaking and printmaking skills the project could not have been completed, Rollins could be considered a kind of benevolent Svengali, prodding and cajoling his young charges to make something out of nothing. The initial vision, like Haydn's sheet music, might be his, but it is his young charges who get up on the world's stage and play the music.

ON MUSIC: TIM ROLLINS + K.O.S. (KIDS OF SURVIVAL) -- Through July 30 at the Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW. 202-337-3050. www.kreegermuseum.org. The special exhibition may be viewed Tuesday-Friday at 10:30 and 1:30 as part of the museum's regularly scheduled tours or on Saturdays from 10 to 4. Call 202-338-3552 or e-mail visitorservices@kreegermuseum.org for reservations (not needed on Saturdays). $8 suggested donation; $5 for students and seniors.

THE CREATION PROJECT -- Through May 27 at Pyramid Atlantic, 8230 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring (Metro: Silver Spring). 301-608-9101. www.pyramidatlanticartcenter.org. Open Monday-Friday 9 to 5. Free.

FREEDOM WORKS -- Saturday through May 21 at Fusebox, 1412 14th St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-299-9220. www.fuseboxdc.com. Open Tuesday-Thursday noon to 6; Fridays and Saturdays noon to 8. Free.

Public programs associated with the Kreeger exhibition include:

May 5 at 7 -- "In Unison: A Roundtable Discussion." Rollins talks about the collaborative process with exhibition curator Andrea Pollan; independent curator Milena Kalinovska; Helen Frederick, artistic director of Pyramid Atlantic; and master printmaker Pepe Coronado. $10.

May 14 at 8 -- Concert: The George Mason University Singers perform selections from Haydn's "The Creation." $35.

May 25 from 1:30 to 3 -- "Artist Collectives: From a History of Guilds to Contemporary Art Practice." George Mason University student Maureen Tucker gives a slide lecture on the history of collaborative art. Free.

For information and reservations, call 202-338-3552.

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