Amerika the Stoker by Tim Rollins and K.O.S

Tim Rollins and K.O.S

Amerika the Stoker, 1993, Acrylic on book pages on linen, 167.6 x 231.1 cm, Courtesy of Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul; Photo: Matthew Herrmann

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An American New Jerusalem

Commentary by

In his evocation of a ‘shining city on a hill’, Puritan leader John Winthrop (1588–1649) cemented the idea of America as the earthly site of the book of Revelation’s New Jerusalem. One of the most eccentric versions of this idea appears in the final chapter of Franz Kafka’s novel Amerika (written 1911–14). In this unfinished work, Kafka envisions America, a country he never visited, as a land of lawless opportunism and arbitrary authority. His beleaguered hero Karl Rossmann arrives, after many trials and tribulations, at the gates of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. This institution serves as a metaphor for America’s promise as the land of new beginnings. At the entrance to the Theater, Karl is greeted by a host of angels creating a fearful din as they make very disharmonious music with their golden trumpets.

This comic scene is the basis of a series of paintings produced by the Art and Knowledge Workshop of Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival. An American artist collective, the Workshop employs works of classic literature as teaching tools for groups of at-risk urban teenagers. Under the guidance of Rollins, who is the Workshop’s founder, the Kids of Survival transformed the last scene of Kafka’s Amerika into a celebration of creative freedom.

The Amerika paintings present intricate compositions of multifarious and entwined horns whose forms are drawn from such popular and high cultural sources as the Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello’s battle scenes, African masks, Santeria icons, Hollywood horror films, Louise Bourgeois sculptures, and birds in flight. Painted in gold over the spread-out pages of the book itself, they give exuberant visual form to the promise of renewal and rebirth embodied by the New Jerusalem, a home ‘for those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life’ (Revelation 21:27).