Equilibrium: A Paul Kos Survey


Equilibrium: A Paul Kos Survey

By Garrett Caples May 17, 2016

Walking into Equilibrium—a fascinating survey of work by Bay Area conceptual artist Paul Kos at Napa’s di Rosa—a viewer is immediately confronted with Condensation of Yellowstone Park Into 64 Square Feet (1969/2016), a re-creation of a piece Kos showed in Tom Marioni’s misleadingly titled conceptual art exhibition The Return of Abstract Expressionism (1969). The piece comprises a flat white board on the floor covered in a mud crater whose bubbling sulfur core sends droplets of mud flying toward its edges. It’s an imitation of a geothermal feature from Yellowstone National Park, an ultra-mimesis whose pops and splashes arguably capture the experience of such terrain more than the most realistic painting could, even as they allude to the pigment-dripping methods of a Pollock.

There’s something disquieting about encountering this oozing, flying mud in a clinical gallery setting, yet there’s also something meditative in observing the irregular but repetitive action, akin to natural phenomena. Both of these feelings point to the ethos of conceptual art. The ephemeral nature of experience is held out as a resistance to the commodification of art as an object valued, bought, and sold within a high-stakes industry. Yet the restaging of Condensation forty-seven years later raises the question of whether experience can itself be reduced to a commodity, a gimmick pulled from an artist’s signature bag of tricks. Are we simply paying to see a trick instead of a thing?

Paul Kos. Condensation of Yellowstone Park Into 64 Square Feet, 1969/2016; mud and sulfur; 96 x 96 in. Courtesy of di Rosa, Napa. Photo: Wilfred J. Jones.

But this might be the wrong question. That is, the disruption of art’s commodity value perhaps takes place not in the relation between artist and viewer, but rather in the relation between artist and collector, whether public institution or private individual. Frequently enough, conceptual art is uncollectable, because the work itself inheres in a finite process; all that remains are artifacts of the process, and the very idea of representing a work of art is brought into crisis. Nothing in Equilibrium embodies this crisis more readily than Container for an Icicle (or Mind Over Matter) (1982), a pleasingly severe, dagger-shaped cedarwood box filled with cedar shavings, in which Kos brought an icicle from his home in the Sierras to an art auction in San Francisco. Naturally the icicle has long since melted, and even if it hadn’t, it was never the work, which instead was the elaborate process of transporting an icicle from the wild, snowy mountains to the city-based auction. Yet Container names the artifact of the work rather than the work itself, and in this case (pun unavoidable) the artifact provokes a certain admiration, if only one akin to our feelings for, say, a finely tooled leather briefcase. The question thus becomes, is the fetishization of the artifact—as a substitute for the work—as much a commodification of art as the making and selling of conventional artworks, or has Kos in fact separated art from commodity by placing the work beyond reach, even as he willingly sells the artifact?

That there are no definitive answers to such questions doesn’t mean they aren’t worth raising. We might note that most of Equilibrium’s twenty-six works are drawn from 1968 to 1974—a high point of countercultural activity in the 20th-century United States, an era of protest and happenings, of consciousness expansion and attacks on institutional oppression—as we turn to what the show identifies as Kos’s first conceptual piece: Lot’s Wife (1968–69). It is represented here by two sets of photographs (gelatin silver prints and chromographic prints) depicting an ephemeral sculpture on the grounds of di Rosa made from a pillar of multicolored salt licks and a herd of Jersey cattle. The artwork itself, however, is again a process, the gradual disappearance of the pillar under the rough tongues of the cows.

Paul Kos. Lot's Wife, 1968/69 (detail); chromogenic prints; 10 x 8 in. Courtesy of di Rosa Collection, Napa.

Lot’s Wife takes its title from the biblical story in Genesis of Lot and his family, in which the wife in question is turned into a pillar of salt for disobeying the injunction of their rescuing angels not to look back while fleeing the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Such an allusion seems to load Lot’s Wife with allegory, but the specific parallels aren’t clear. Is the piece a commentary on the conventional experience of art, in which the cows are the audience, whose dumb consumption of what’s placed in front of them ultimately destroys the work itself? Or is the pillar of salt a figure for the audience, the ones who look, making the piece an oblique warning against the dangers of looking back versus experiencing the present moment? What are we to make, moreover, of the fact that the work “survives” solely through photographs, an entirely conventional medium of gallery and museum art?

Paul Kos. Equilibrium: A Paul Kos Survey, installation view; The Drawing for a Tool: Ice Lens Maker, 1974; watercolor and ink; 30 x 22 in.; and Ice Makes Fire, 1974/2004; single-channel video, color, sound; 5:21. Courtesy of di Rosa, Napa. Photo: Wilfred J. Jones.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a process-oriented conceptualist, Kos was among the earliest artists to incorporate video into his work, and he would go on to a lengthy career teaching performance and video at San Francisco Art Institute. This branch of his activity results in the show’s most satisfying work, Ice Makes Fire (1974/2004). A five-minute, twenty-one-second video set on Pilot Butte in Wyoming, Ice Makes Fire documents the process of Kos turning a block of ice into a lens by spinning it on the inverted lid of a frying pan. He then holds the ice to the sun, focusing a beam of light onto a small pile of kindling placed in the snow. The wood begins to smolder and, after a brief but agonizing delay, a flame emerges. Once the flame begins to blaze in earnest, however, he drops the lens onto it, extinguishing it while simultaneously melting the lens.

The use of video in Ice Makes Fire is essential, for no description or still image could adequately stand in for the experience of seeing the process occur. The simplicity and elegance of its conception and execution yield a mental exhilaration, for Kos has unified opposites with an alchemical verve worthy of Duchamp. More than any other piece in the show, Ice Makes Fire proves conceptual art’s capacity to reach the highest levels of artistic achievement, despite its ephemeral nature and humble materials.


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Equilibrium: A Paul Kos Survey is on view at di Rosa, in


, through October 2, 2016.

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