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Everything Matters

Paul Kos, a Retrospective

April 2, 2003 - July 20, 2003

Paul Kos: Pawn, 1991 (detail); 2,500 plastic magnetic chess pieces, steel, and wood; 118 x 88 x 11 1/2 in.; collection of the artist; courtesy Gallery Paule Anglim; photo: Ben Blackwell.

"These precepts are wound like threads through all of Kos's work: beauty, precision, seduction, metaphor, punning, balance."—Ron Meyers

This spring BAM/PFA presents a major retrospective of leading Bay Area artist Paul Kos. Accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog, the exhibition in Gallery B, the museum's central atrium, will span the artist's more than thirty-year career and, after Berkeley, travel to the Grey Art Gallery, New York University; the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; and the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati.

In a recent talk on his work, Kos expressed his own philosophy by paraphrasing a statement by Czech poet and president Vaclav Havel, who observed that in the West everything works and nothing matters, while in the East nothing works and everything matters. Things do matter to Kos. Through metaphors (or signifiers) drawn from his own experiences, passions, and activities, he makes works that require, even demand, participation from the viewer. This participation might be physical (ringing a bell, walking into an architectural space, tripping a sound element) or intellectual, but the viewer does his or her part.

Kos was one of the major figures in the early Conceptual Art movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Already defined by cultural change and political activism, the Bay Area became an important center for the revolutionary spirit in art and with it, the rise of the new genres of video, performance, and installation. Kos was among the first artists (in step with contemporaries such as Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman) to incorporate video, as well as sound and interactivity, into sculptural installations.

Kos moved from his native Wyoming to San Francisco to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, where he received his M.F.A. in 1967 (and where he has taught in the New Genres department for twenty-five years). His work evolved in the direction of video and sculptural installations in which he allowed the action of natural materials to unfold. Earth Art and Arte Povera were strong influences on The Sound of Ice Melting (1970), in which ten state-of-the-art boom microphones recorded the "sound" of the disintegration of several large blocks of ice; and Sand Piece (1971), which transformed a two-story gallery into a giant hourglass as a ton of sand yielded to the pull of gravity, sifting slowly through a minute hole in the upper level to form a perfect cone on the floor below.

Kos used video to both humorous and unsettling ends in the interactive videowork rEVOLUTION: Notes for the Invasion: mar mar march (1972-73). The work is designed so that, in order to see the video monitor, a viewer must walk over or on narrow planks of wood placed at regular intervals. The image turns out to be a small figure marching back and forth above typewriter keys that spell out "mar mar march" with mechanical regularity, echoing the viewer's cadenced step.

Although not overtly polemical, many of Kos's later works question the rigid national divisions that lead to conflict, or quietly advocate for human understanding across cultures. A 1989 installation, Tower of Babel, is a spiral ramp with twenty video monitors, each showing a person speaking a different language. From afar, the sound is chaotic and indeterminable; only as viewers approach each monitor can they distinguish what is being said.

Many of Kos's pieces engage the viewer in the paradoxes of belief. The ritual and imagery of the Catholic Church are recurrent themes, and the bell a frequent metaphor. In Guadalupe Bell of 1989, the viewer seems to produce the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the wall by sounding a large bell. The artist's best-known work, the sublime Chartres Bleu (1983-86), recreates in full scale a stained-glass window from Chartres Cathedral. Each of twenty-seven vertically stacked video monitors duplicates an individual leaded-glass panel. The brightness of the images simulates the light changes in a normal day, twenty-four hours accelerated into twelve minutes. Depending on the light, the narrative scenes can be clearly read or, when brightly illuminated, dissolve into abstraction.

Kos has also made public artworks that reflect his lifelong interest in the natural landscape. These include Poetry/Sculpture Garden (2000), in downtown San Francisco, a collaboration with former U.S. poet laureate and UC Berkeley professor Robert Hass. The urban garden's primary component is an eighty-six-ton boulder Kos brought down in sections from the Sierras and then reconstituted on site.

One of the defining characteristics of Kos's work is a sense of play—indeed, many of his pieces refer to and are organized around games such as pétanque, pool, and chess. But even more fundamental is the synthesis of his life and work. His love of nature, his teaching, travels in Mexico, France, and Switzerland, his concern for humanity (tempered with a sense of the absurd) are all present in subject, symbol, or metaphor as Kos seamlessly integrates form and content into provocative and visually stunning works of art.

Constance Lewallen
Senior Curator for Exhibitions