PORTLAND, Maine — “Just for the sheer joy of it. With no agenda.”
Those are the words artist Tim Rollins used to describe the doings of Puck, the mischievous jester of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He was talking, as he remembered, to his collaborators, the self-titled Kids of Survival, a fluid group of disadvantaged students and former students from the South Bronx.
Rollins and Kids of Survival were working on a commission, inspired by the play and by Felix Mendelssohn’s musical take on it, that was to cover an entire wall at the Portland Museum of Art.
As they set about the task, Rollins encouraged his collaborators to “become Puck,” whom he went on to describe as “the little rascal. The one that loves to transform things. . . . It’s like the bad kid in the class – ‘Yeah, I just wanted to make something happen. I’m bored, I want to do something. Let’s make it happen.’”
They did. The new work, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is approximately 13 feet high and 34 feet across. Visible from various perches on two different levels of the museum, it is a random-looking but fairly even field of parti-colored blotches superimposed on printed sheet music.
The blotches, like beautiful flowers perceived through half-closed eyes, are intended to evoke Puck’s magic potion which, sprayed onto the eyelids of his sleeping victims, makes them fall in love with the first living creature they see. To make them, various inks and juices were applied to thin Mulberry paper laid over a grid of sheet music (the score to Mendelsohn’s setting of the play).
Rollins was born and raised in Maine. He has been making art with K.O.S. since 1982, when — inspired by his experience as a teacher at Intermediate School 52, in the South Bronx — he chose to pursue a mode of creativity that combined collaboration with teaching. (He was influenced by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s 1970 book, “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”)
Superimposing images — abstract or figurative but always loaded with metaphorical significance — onto a grid of pages from famous books or sheet music is an artistic strategy Rollins & K.O.S. have been using for 30 years. What is new for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is that the image has been printed onto latex-saturated cellulose from a digital file, with the help of a textile printing company called Maharam.
The effect is innocuously decorative, and in that sense, just right, perhaps, for a museum presently striving to please as many people as possible.
But it’s something more, too. We get to reflect on what that more might be with the help of a small, accompanying exhibition, intended to herald the new acquisition, titled “Unbound: Tim Rollins & K.O.S.”
The show takes up just two galleries, and includes only a handful of works. I came to the museum hoping for something bigger. Yet it remains surprisingly stimulating.
Inspired by major literary and political texts or musical scores, the works all conform to the collective’s standard modus operandi: Images — figurative, abstract, or script-based — are superimposed on printed pages of the texts that inspired the work. Here those texts include Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” as well as musical scores by Duke Ellington (“The River”) and Schubert (“Winterreise”).
Pondering the works, you find yourself teasing out meanings prompted not just by the relationship between the original source and its overlay, but by questions such as: Can education become an art medium (an idea Rollins has said he fell in love with)? And: Can great art-making be framed by an ideal of service to the community (another aim Rollins has emphasized)?
In the process of trying to answer such questions, one inevitably becomes acutely conscious of power dynamics everywhere: in society at large; in education; in the art world; and within collective art-making.
Rollins was raised a Baptist Pentecostal, and remains strongly influenced by the Baptist emphasis on individual free agency. Most of the members of the collective are Catholic or lapsed Catholic. So the work may also prompt reflections on the relationship among religious faith, hope, creativity, and survival.
These are all Very Big Questions. Answering them is certainly not a precondition for enjoying the work. In fact, it may be better to approach it in the spirit of Puck, “the bad kid in the class.”
Personally, I loved the new Puck-inspired mural. Even more, I admire the way that the collective’s interventions in its high-minded source material can be seen in two, seemingly contradictory ways. On the one hand, they are gorgeously nuanced and sensitive amplifications of the source material, respectful and alert.
On the other, they’re defilements, acts of vandalism, payback: “Take your canon,” they almost seem to say as they deliberately deface yet another hallowed page, “take your rhetoric of redemption, take your deathless, ‘Dead Poets Society,’ pedagogical charisma, and shove it. This is my life. I’m bored. I’m going to make something happen. Just for the sheer joy of it. With no agenda.”
To me, a lot of Rollins and K.O.S.’s work feels hamstrung by a formula it has adhered to, like a trademark, too long. What’s more, although I sympathize with the ambition, I’m not sure if education can profitably be regarded as an artistic medium. In the end, they’re separate categories, and it’s really OK if they stay that way.
Nor, finally, do I much like committing art to the idea that it ought to serve a social and politically progressive ideal. Things get very boring very quickly if you go down that route.
Still, I often find my own natural skepticism about Rollins’s project beaten down by the intelligence, visual drama, and rich ambivalence of the work itself.
UNBOUND: Tim Rollins & K.O.S.
At: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through Dec. 31. 207-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.