Images that call for action

Special to The Times

"I do not make art," Paul Kos proclaimed in 1969 on the occasion of his first solo show. "I build half of a potential kinetic situation / You must supply the other half / I, YOU, and the OBJECT are irrelevant, but our / combination is art."

Visitors to the show at the Richmond (Calif.) Art Center engaged with Kos' work right at the front door, which he had blocked with a 5-foot-high, 7,000-pound wall of ice. They had to enter through a side door to see the rest of the exhibition, which included documentation of the artist's other works, including "Lot's Wife," a pillar of salt blocks erected on a field and licked away by cattle. The ice barrier, titled "Richmond Glacier," met a hastier demise. The local fire department deemed it a fire hazard and demolished it the next day.

In Kos' work, natural elements succumb to natural processes and external forces, artistic or otherwise. His art is rarely static; it transpires. Over time, he has embraced higher-tech materials, but he continues to stage encounters that don't just invite participation but require it.

"A lot of my work -- and even good painting -- is interactive," he says. "It does require the viewer's presence and consciousness. It's like being offered a glass of wine. It isn't there just to be there. You have to drink it."

A trim, intent man of 61, Kos flew from his home in San Francisco for the installation and opening of his show, "Everything Matters: Paul Kos, A Retrospective," at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's downtown space. The exhibition, organized by Constance Lewallen for the UC Berkeley Art Museum, where it opened last year, surveys Kos' pioneering work in installation, video and performance.

"Tower of Babel" (1989) dominates the museum's upstairs gallery. The spiraling metal scaffold holds 20 video monitors, rising from waist level to several feet overhead. Faces appear on the screens, each speaking or singing in a different language. Their voices blend into a rich, rumbling cacophony.

"Equilibre IV" (1992) is far quieter and simpler but no less provocative. It consists of a broom standing upright on its bristles. On the tip of its handle rests a gently arched length of coat hanger wire, perfectly balanced by a small bell hanging from one end and a short white candle perched on the other.

Looking at the work in the show, it's far from obvious that Kos originally studied to be a painter.

He earned a master of fine arts degree in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1967. He became a good disciple, he says, of such luminaries as Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown and Frank Lobdell. Once he finished his schooling, he veered away from paint and canvas toward a more conceptual approach to making art. He enacted performances like "rEVOLUTION" (1971), in which he shot hundreds of rounds of ammunition into a plywood panel hanging from a tree. In form, he deviated radically from the work of his teachers, but in spirit, his work shared their passion for process and improvisation.

"In a way, a good Abstract Expressionist painting is like looking at geology," he explains, his blue eyes sharp but his voice slightly muffled from a recent cold. "You can see which layer came first and which was probably the last stroke put on the canvas, just as sedimentary rock would line up. It's a noun that we're looking at, but it's the verb that's being examined. The painters showed product at the end of their verb. The early performance work showed the verb action. The residue was not as important."

Kos left the Art Institute as a painter but returned 10 years later as a teacher in the newly created department of performance video. The intervening decade was pivotal for him, as it was for the culture at large and the community of young Bay Area artists in which he played a central role. Art was making the shift, as he puts it, from noun to verb, from its traditional position above daily life to a new role actively ensconced within it.

Conceptual artists challenged the conventional definition of art as a static object, often by creating ephemeral works centered on ideas and actions. For Kos, this wasn't an either/or proposition. He defined himself as a "material-based Conceptual artist."

"I'm very interested in materiality, the way it can speak and be both the content and form of a piece," he says.

Natural materials dominated in Kos' early work, the influence of both his rural Wyoming childhood and his exposure to Arte Povera, a European movement embracing the raw and the humble, and exploring, as Kos describes it, "how materials like air, fire and water can behave, almost in performance."

"Pilot Light/Pilot Butte (or, The Alchemy of Ice)" (1974), represented in the current exhibition by a black and white video, shows Kos enacting an age-old ritual (starting a fire) in an unexpected new way, by using a chunk of ice as a lens to focus the sun's rays. Once the kindling ignited, the heat of the flames began to melt the ice, which Kos then dropped onto the fire to extinguish it.

The circularity of the act had poetry to it but also a slightly absurdist sense of humor, something his work shares with that of Bruce Nauman. Kos became aware of Nauman's videos and sculpture in the late '60s and found his resourcefulness inspiring. "He's a genius," Kos says, "at making art out of nothing."

Kos' own art has become technically more involved over the years, and he's acutely aware of the relevance of even the smallest formal detail. Everything matters, as the show's title suggests. The phrase derives from a quip that Kos had shared with curator Lewallen, something that former Czech President Vaclav Havel stated in an address to the U.S. Congress.

"He said that in the East, nothing works and everything matters, and in the West, everything works and nothing matters. He got huge applause, which was amazing, because, in a way, he was saying to our Congress that we're not serious about anything, but everything runs."

Kos sees himself as a sculptor first, and though many of his works are dense with political and religious symbolism, they tend to evolve out of the manipulation and exploration of materials. "Chartres Bleu" (1983-86), for instance, a stunning video installation replicating one of the French cathedral's stained glass windows, took shape, in part, in answer to a technical challenge.

He and numerous other artists started shooting video in the late 1960s, usually in real time, to document performances and actions of various sorts.

"We used video then because it was cheap and truthful and immediate," Kos recalls. "As artists got more influenced by what was going on in advertising, they started making more edits per second, and the commercial world became more influential over the art. With 'Chartres Bleu,' I wanted to see if I could do a piece with no edits."

In the piece, Kos has recast one form of visual storytelling, stained glass, through another, video. The installation's 27 stacked monitors cohere into a convincing -- and mesmerizing -- representation of the window and its shifting luminescence through the course of a day. The details aren't so simple (the piece was actually made from transparencies shot on video), but the effect is startling. "It doesn't reveal itself as new genre art at first," Kos says, "but as one of the oldest genres, stained glass."

Symbols of the church -- bells, candles, the stained-glass window -- thread through Kos' exhibition, as do references to communism and its fall in Eastern Europe.

"There were times when I was a bit overly influenced by political events and did work almost as social commentary," he reflects, but that's not what stimulates him now. Lately, he's been thinking about revisiting the "Pilot Light" piece.

"I'm trying to figure out how to make it come full circle. That is, now using fire to make ice. I haven't got there yet," he says with a laugh, "but I'm working on it."

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'Everything Matters: Paul Kos, A Retrospective'

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Downtown, 1001 Kettner Blvd., San Diego

When: Thursday to Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Wednesday.

Ends: May 2

Price: Free

Contact: (858) 454-3541

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